Professors discuss meaning of Labor Day

“So, what exactly is the rest of the country celebrating?” asked Professor of Economics Bob Williams. “What is it about Labor Day? I get Thanksgiving, I get why we’re celebrating the Fourth of July, and Easter and Christmas. What are we celebrating with Labor Day? Why is it a holiday?”

On Monday, Sep. 3, a dinner and discussion was held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Gilmer Room of Founders Hall. There were several faculty presentations, followed by a period of discussion that allowed students, faculty and staff to explore the origins and meaning of Labor Day, as well as union organizing. In one presentation, “From May Day to Labor Day: A Brief History,” Williams explored past events that inspired the creation of Labor Day, as well as the danger in forgetting what Labor Day is really about.

“I think we lose something when we don’t even know the stories of when our ancestors, working people, stood up and took an incredible risk,” said Williams. “(They) made the kinds of demands like eight hour working day, safe working conditions, no child labor, decent wages. And in some cases, they lost their lives, and in some cases, they were successful.”

In addition to reflecting on the history of Labor Day, attendees were able to hear about the experience of organizing unions in higher education in current times.

“We had to explain to (administrators) how things have been working, and that it’s not good,” said Chris Shreve, a biology lab instructor at Duke University. “And half the time these administrators didn’t even know what the reality on the ground was.

“The highest administrators were so disconnected that as long as they didn’t hear about it, they assumed it was working fine. And it was part of our job to sit across the table from them and tell them that it was not fine.”

Shreve and MJ Sharp, a lecturing fellow in photography at Duke University, discussed what they learned from their experiences in union organizing during their presentation, “Herding Cats: Organizing Unions in Higher Education.”

“When you really give people nothing to lose, which is pretty much what’s going on here, we’re very dangerous,” said Sharp. “You have given us no reason to think that you’ve got our backs, so we’re coming for you. It made it really easy after a while.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Maria Rosales also discussed her past in union organizing and the important lessons that she learned from her experiences in her presentation, “Labor Lessons: Persuading, Prioritizing, and Partying.”

“My first lesson is you have to talk to people face to face,” said Rosales. “It’s the best way to persuade people and to find out what matters to them.”

Rosales went on to emphasize the importance of patience in waiting for a movement to gain momentum rather than taking action before having the proper support.

“My second lesson is if you are doing something really visible, like having a strike, you really need to know that the majority is on your side before you do it,” said Rosales. “The worst thing is to have a big, public loss, because it takes so much work to come back from. You have to regain people’s trust and show them that you know what you are doing.”

While the faculty presentations looked back to the past for explanations and lessons, they also emphasized learning from what has happened when looking to the future.

“I think that having this sense of this history would contradict the narrative that some people put forward that we don’t have royalty in this country that we don’t have classes in this country,” said Williams. “We’re all Americans. And yet we have tremendous inequalities in this country in wealth, income and power. And in some cases, it’s worse than it’s ever been.”

Former Campus Ministry Coordinator Max Carter expressed similar sentiments in his presentation, “The Interconnection of the Values of Simplicity, Equality, Peace, and Integrity.”

“Some have power that they inherit or earn,” said Carter. “But however you get it, you have the option of using that power for good or ill.”