Labor Day honors work and workers. Maybe that seems like a truism, but it might just be truthy. As more than a few commentators have noticed, recent political rhetoric more often features “America’s small-business fetish” than concern for the conditions of work. The 2012 presidential debaters jousted about the definition of a “small business,” but only to cloak themselves in the mantle of populism. Small business owners are heroic, job creating, risk takers—which leaves one to wonder what the rest of the population is.
Everyone else, and that’s the vast majority, is, in the words of Huey Lewis and the News (and Garth Brooks, in the 2007 version), taking what they’re giving ‘cuz I’m working for a living. This is a pretty perky song, but let’s admit that it’s about realizing that you just can’t get ahead by waiting on a paycheck. It’s surely no coincidence that the 1982 original was pop and the newer cover is country and even in the 80s, the lyrics of Dolly Parton’s country crossover song 9 to 5 hit the theme of worker exploitation a lot harder. Country singers have kept on singing to the blue-collar class in the tradition of Woody Guthrie while recent pop, rock, and rap are a lot more likely to be about money than about work. Case in point: Bon Jovi who had the 1980s rock anthem Livin’ on a Prayer about a diner waitress and her unemployed dock worker boyfriend now leans Nashville.
Country is more likely to be about sincerity in a contemporary pop culture that favors cynicism, irony, and self-reference. T.V. and movies about work and working tend towards sarcasm, not solidarity. Two words here: The Office. Watching workers on screen these days is likely to remind one that work was the price we paid for original sin. We might roll our eyes at the fictional Mark Zuckerberg’s heartlessness in The Social Network but let’s admit the dominant notes of the movie are envy and admiration. I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad. And etc.
These are the days of the one percent and the rest. Labor Day is a day devoted to the dignity of work. Work in the abstract. Self-employed or working for the man. Work for pay, even if paltry. It’s a Gilded Age holiday, after all.