Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
In 2016, I wrote about how we celebrate Labor Day, and how far it has moved away for many people from the origins of the holiday in the labor movement and celebrating workers. Instead, Labor Day for many had become a day of sales and shopping, as well as barbecues, requiring even more low-paid workers to work on a holiday.
Have things changed for Labor Day in the midst of a pandemic?
What Labor Day was
The origins of Labor Day in the US haven't changed, and I have to honor Labor Day by starting with the original meaning of Labor Day, as a day to celebrate workers grounded in the labor movement.
As I wrote in 2016, my genre-colored glasses let me see the origins of Labor Day through its genres--union charters, picket signs, and protest songs, as well as official proclamations and Senate bills. Those genres reveal the actions people took to make Labor Day happen.
The first Labor Day was called in New York City in 1882 when the Central Labor Union organizers declared a strike to get workers the day off. Jay Zagorsky in The Conversation recounts the origins of Labor Day in labor unions.
The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland in the US signed the Senate bill making Labor Day a national holiday for federal workers. For a bit more of the history behind Labor Day, check out the Department of Labor's brief history, or watch History's youtube video.
So how will Labor Day be celebrated in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic?
Surely we are more aware of the value of workers who have provided essential labor at their own risk in grocery stores, as delivery drivers, food suppliers, and essential workers of all kinds.
Surely this is a moment to support all unionized workers and advocate for improving wages and working conditions of those workers we depend on.
As Leslie Nielsen in the movie Airport said, " Don't call me Shirley."
Labor Day is still some days away, so maybe new things will still happen. But so far, all I see are the same genres, the same actions as usual—and even fewer of those that celebrate workers.
What Labor Day is
Giant Labor Day Sale!!!
Sale, Labor Day only!
Labor Day Weekend Sale!!!!!
Behind every one of those ads is a group of workers having to work on Labor Day. Labor Day is supposed to mean a day away from labor, recognizing and rewarding those who have labored for us. Not a day they should labor harder
So much for our recognizing the value of essential workers during the pandemic. So much for appreciating and rewarding those who risk their health so others can shop the sales.
Even if more people do their Labor Day sale shopping online, online stores require workers, and most stores have been reopened and need workers physically present.
Barbecues, speeches, parades, oh my!
Maybe there will be fewer family barbecues if people follow health guidelines (please do stay physically distant and avoid larger gatherings!)
But that also means fewer or smaller gatherings of union members.
Fewer or smaller parades honoring workers.
Fewer speeches recognizing and applauding workers.
Traditionally, the president delivers a Labor Day address. FDR in 1941 praised the value of workers in winning the war. Obama in 2016 described what his administration had done to improve working conditions.
Will the current president even give a Labor Day address? My search of the White House website found proclamations issued in late August before each Labor Day in 2018 and 2019, though I could find none for 2017. But no speeches.
A duckduckgo search for "Obama Labor Day speech" found many links, including YouTube videos of his Labor Day speeches. The same search for "Trump Labor Day speech" found a few speeches, but none marked as Labor Day speeches or apparently any given on a Labor Day.
So maybe more than the pandemic makes this Labor Day different from ones in the before-times.
What Labor Day can be
In a time when jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, in a time when low-wage jobs carry even greater risk to workers, we should all be more aware than ever of the value of labor. We should all be even more aware of the value of labor unions. Even my own (pre-retirement) job as a university professor, as privileged as it was, carries with it now additional labor and additional risks, adding even more reasons to unionize.
So Labor Day during a pandemic is different in some ways—more reasons to value labor, fewer occasions recognizing labor.
And Labor Day during a pandemic is the same in some ways—sales, ads, and business as usual.
But we can do something to recognize Labor Day differently ourselves during a pandemic
And if you’re a worker who has been putting yourself at risk in your job, I thank you. If you’re a worker who has to work on Labor Day, I thank you.
To all of you, dear readers, I say take care of yourselves. Skip the Labor Day gatherings. No barbecues or picnics except in households. Stay physically distant. Wear a mask.
Labor Day can remind us, as does the pandemic, that we are all in this together. An injury to one is an injury to all