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
(Edited September 4, 2020, for image links)
Look at Labor Day through its genres
When I see the world through genre-colored glasses, I see how genres help to create the meaningful events in our world. So I look at Labor Day and I see its origins in union charters, picket signs, and protest songs—as well as in proclamations and Senate bills.
And I see how genres help to shape how we experience those events today. So I look at Labor Day today and I see parades, speeches, and cookouts—as well as store sale ads.
(Yes, I’m getting loose with genre in applying it to parades and cookouts, but they are types of actions we take together in similar ways. I don’t want to limit genres to things with text. But that’s probably a debate for my academic readers to take up with me, probably not of interest to everyone.)
So let me use Labor Day to show you how one event, one day, can appear through the lens of its genres.
(Thank you for your patience if this media-heavy post has been slow to load.)
The making of Labor Day is grounded in the workers' labor movement, tied forever to union charters, strikes, and picket signs. In 1882, the first Labor Day was called in New York City by the Central Labor Union (Jay Zagorsky offers a great history of Labor Day's union connections). The organizers had to declare a strike to get workers the day off.
In the US, President Grover Cleveland signed the Senate bill making Labor Day a national holiday for federal workers in 1894, in part trying to make up for the disastrous handling of the Pullman strike. 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.
Presidents are still involved with Labor Day, usually offering a Labor Day address. FDR, in 1941, emphasized the role of the American worker in winning the war. President Obama, in 2016, addressed what his administration has done to improve conditions for workers.
While other politicians and city officials often give speeches on Labor Day, too, street parades and picnics and festivals for workers were the original ways of celebrating Labor Day. Today, public parades of union members and marching bands, picnics and festivals still honor workers. But more private celebrations may be more common--family cookouts and barbecues, types of events with little public recognition of workers.
Even worse for the worker and the original meaning of the holiday, another genre teaches us how to "celebrate" Labor Day in the US-- ads for Labor Day sales. What would a holiday be without an opportunity to shop?
Of course, the irony is that store sales ads require open stores that require store workers having to work on Labor Day. So while I'd like to see more of the genre of store hours signs like the closed sign from Caribou Coffee, I'm afraid it's more common these days to see circular ads and TV commercials for Labor Day sales.
Making the point for me is the great parody Labor Day Sale commercial from the funny sitcom Superstore, below. Allow this nod to the retail workers of the world, and all workers who could still use the strength of unions.
No collection of Labor Day genres would be complete without the folk songs that honor workers and their plights. The Nation gathered a good collection of their Top Ten Labor Day songs, with Pete Seeger's "Solidarity Forever" at number one, and including The Clash, Phil Ochs, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dolly Parton, and other greats. For the strong union emphasis, I've got a few favorites.
Here's Hazel Dickens, Fire in the Hole, honoring miners
Then there's Sweet Honey In the Rocks' "More than a Paycheck." Listen carefully to the lyrics
What better way to end my Labor Day celebration than with the classic from 1941, Pete Seeger's "Solidarity Forever," with a nice collection of video clips of union actions.
Unions still matter.
Long Island University
Fast food workers
What Labor Day genres did I leave out? I'm sure there are more that create and help us celebrate the holiday and teach us what the holiday is about--whether shopping for bargains or giving the worker time off and public respect.