Remember Those Who Won Labor Day for You.

In 2008, America is bankrupt. The banking system itself is on life support. Millions of Americans are losing their homes. Millions more are unemployed or underemployed or for other reasons terrified of losing what little income our perverse economy allots them. The hateful Bush administration clings to the nation's back like a ravenous vulture while it picks our pockets and tears viciously at our Constitution and our precious civil liberties.

Democrats, for their part, just yesterday nominated a pair of fascist lapdogs who would have us believe that the cure for all the ills I've named is war, war, and more war. War on Russia, war on drugs, war on Iran, war on terror, war on everything for the next hundred years or so. Listening to their bellicose noise, thoughtful people can only conclude that the land of the free and the home of the brave has become the land we must flee before we're enslaved.

The idea of enslavement brings to mind the fact that Labor Day is coming once again. On this weekend, Americans who still labor and those who cannot find work will feast together at millions of picnics, barbecues, reunion dinners, and other joyous, commemorative celebrations. Precisely what those celebrations commemorate is the business of this essay.

What follows was written because, in observance of Labor Day 2002, National Public Radio aired a story about folk hero John Henry. I give you this item now because, on Labor Day 2008, American labor and America itself are in much worse shape than they were when this piece was written. While fascist boots stomp American labor into the dirt of poverty and humiliation, today seems a good time to recall once again the true story behind the creation of Labor Day. Here, then, is the item I call:

To Hell with John Henry: Make Mine Mother Jones!

In observance of Labor Day 2002, National Public Radio aired a story about folk hero John Henry. That was a poor choice. I'm here to tell you why.

John Henry was a tunnel driver on a railroad construction gang. He used a 9-pound hammer to drive drill bits into rock. Not everyone can swing a 9-pound hammer, so John Henry's job seemed secure. When the railroad bought a steam drill, John Henry bet his boss that he could work faster than the machine. A contest ensued. John Henry won, but the effort killed him when his heart burst at the finish. Folk ballads boast that John Henry “died with a hammer in his hand.”

Other fables tout fatal exploits of other blue-collar heroes. Casey Jones, for example, was an engineer famous on the railroad because he always arrived on time. Some stories say he was killed in a high-speed wreck as he raced to get back on schedule after leaving the station late. Other stories claim that his brakes failed on a grade. Gravity pulled the train downhill, faster and faster, until it jumped the track. Jones was supposedly “found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, scalded to death by the steam.”

Folklore is heady stuff. Told in song, delivered in dulcet harmony by a trio like Peter, Paul and Mary or in a deific baritone by such as Johnny Cash, folk tales can swell our hearts and even bring tears. But folk tales are inappropriate for Labor Day, as NPR editors ought to know.

Facts about Labor Day are easy to come by, even from mainstream sources. I filched the following three paragraphs from the website of PBS News Hour:

"The observance of Labor Day began over 100 years ago. Conceived by America's labor unions as a testament to their cause, legislation sanctioning the holiday was shepherded through Congress amid labor unrest and signed by President Grover Cleveland as a reluctant election-year compromise.

"The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. In 1894, protests against President Cleveland's harsh [strike-breaking] methods made appeasement of workers a top political priority. In the wake of the [Pullman] strike, legislation was rushed through Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops [broke] the Pullman strike.

"1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born."

There it is. Labor Day is not about a poor slob who worked himself to death to avoid a layoff, nor is it about some hambone who got killed by faulty equipment. Labor Day was not granted us by benevolent government to commemorate victims like John Henry and Casey Jones. Instead Labor Day is a day of rest, wrested by organized labor from corrupt government. Labor Day is an apology for crimes committed by government acting illegally in the service of capital. It is a holiday snatched by workers from the grasping claws of greedy, ruthless industrialists, the likes of whom killed John Henry and Casey Jones and unsung hordes of other hard-working people.

If NPR wants to commemorate Labor Day, NPR should forget John Henry and instead air an item about a hero of the labor movement. Eugene V. Debs comes readily to mind. So do Lucy Parsons, Big Bill Haywood, the Haymarket Martyrs and dozens more.

Defenders of NPR may object that the people I just named were rabid socialists and revolutionaries. It's true. They were. So what? It's also true that they led the labor movement through a period when capital and government acted together without restraint to crush the labor movement and murder or in other ways silence its leaders. The movement persevered and survived because its leaders were as tough and ruthless as its enemies. They weren't saints. They were sinners and sometimes criminals. But they were heroes because they led the fight to end child labor - to win the 8-hour day - to get a minimum wage - to get Social Security - to make the workplace safe. That fight is not history, folks. It continues to this day.

So I say to National Public Radio: Stop telling fairy tales! Any observance of Labor Day that lauds John Henry and shuns Joe Hill is no tribute. If it remembers Casey Jones and forgets Mother Jones, it is a travesty. If it appeals to your establishmentarian, white-collar audience, if it wins you praise from them, it is nevertheless crappy, gutless journalism. If it is in fact the best you can do, then you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.



They definitely ought to be ashamed of themselves, but then again they're doing exactly what they're there for.


But there's lots of people out there who don't know what we know.


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

Tell me about it

Listening to their bellicose noise, thoughtful people can only conclude that the land of the free and the home of the brave has morphed into the land we must flee before we're enslaved.

Excellent phrasing ! I'm putting this up on my blog right away.

If I can give you an advice, I think you should put your links in bold letters, cause it's pretty difficult to spot them otherwise.

NPR is not what it used to be, or so I've heard. I was on a pro-immigration website, The Sanctuary, and I learned that NPR helped give a voice to a supremacist group, disguised (but poorly) as a reasonable group.

And as I explained there, it does not take a genius to understand that this is what they stand for. Anti-immigration, anti-labor.

I don't think I told you my Huffington Post story, here it is in French on my blog. Long story short, I was reading some of Dennis Perrin's funny stuff there, and I saw that there was an article about Sarkozy, and it ended like this:
As long as the Bush administration actually takes to heart the notion that allies can respectfully disagree occasionally and still be allies, and the Sarkozy administration resists the historical urge to oppose a position solely because the United States is for it, we should be in good shape.
I see that the comments are back. Nice, but they didn't put everything back, and that's too bad. Among the things you could read, other than my own comment, was some guy complaining about workers being too lazy. And he absolutely swore that he was a card-carrying Democrat for 20 years... Ugh...

So yeah, NPR is full of shit, a lot of Democrats are. Still, nice job teaching us about this day's history.

What this also brings to my mind

When I read about this story of John Henry, I'm thinking of the thousands of Japanese workers who literally work themselves to death each year. This is horrible. Again, we see the power of narrative at work. You shall work, work, work till you die and you will be a hero. It is the same in Japan.

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