Labor Day, when I was growing up, was both the time that heralded return to school (in those days, no schools opened before the holiday) and a time when many of Manchester’s shoe shops and mills re-opened after an August closure during which the facilities underwent maintenance and in some cases upgrading.
Mostly immigrant workers – Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, French-speaking Canadians and others – worked the mills and shops that lined Manchester’s Merrimack River.
Each summer, many workers would be given vacation during August – with the promise of a vacation pay package when they returned – that coincided with the annual factory shutdowns.
And each September, when they returned after Labor Day, many workers would be told that their place of employment was under new ownership – and that the new owner wasn’t liable for the vacation pay package! And each September they returned to work because they had no choice, and because they had no one to advocate for them.
My father was one of those workers. When, after years of such abuse, he decided to be a union organizer, he lost his job. He had to move on to another factory – where he again became an organizer – and again lost his job.
At 16, I spent a summer at Manchester’s Sibulken Shoe working alongside Daddy – no internships then, just hard dirty work – and during his August break I remember working alongside him in his garden. He had to go back after Labor Day. I got to go back to school.
The factories finally organized and when Daddy became a CIO (Congress for Industrial Organization) delegate, we were proud.
I worked in the textile mills as well. The summer following my high school graduation, I worked four days a week for Jim’s Men’s Shop on Hanover Street, weekend nights until 10:30 p.m. dishing ice cream at the Puritan Drive-In on Daniel Webster Highway North – and six nights a week I worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at Waumbec Mills as a roving frame tender.
The summer was hard, but the promise of college lay ahead.
It’s a different America this Labor Day than the weekend I left for college, not just because schools open earlier but also because how some Americans now define themselves has changed – and not just for the better.
Americans who once embraced the American dream, and many of those who achieved it, today want to pull up the ladder behind them to deny opportunity to others. While the country is more diverse and much progress has been made, especially in race relations and gender opportunities, there is much further to go.
Yet there is so much resistance.
Republicans, especially during this hysterical pre-primary season, as we in New Hampshire experience it, today launch ad hominem attacks on immigrants, organized labor and on the American Constitution with little fear of blowback because so many are willing to listen to their message of fear, exceptionalism and exclusion.
Scott Walker is running for president on a platform of being a union basher and suggests America might want to consider building a wall along our border with Canada. Donald Trump is running for president on a platform defined by bashing Mexicans while refusing to offer any coherent or affirmative policy positions, and Lindsey Graham has never met a war he isn’t willing to have someone else fight.
And next week Trump, along with Sen. Joseph McCarthy-incarnate Ted Cruz, will appear alongside Frank Gaffney and the Islamophobic Center for Security Policy at a Washington, D.C., rally to oppose the historic new agreement with Iran.
Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum want to make the Constitution subservient to the Christian Bible. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are thrashing about trying to discover themselves (What do I believe today?) all while ex-Texas governor Rick Perry is thankfully sinking into oblivion.
Some political observers are theorizing that Trump and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson (who is surging in Iowa) are at the top of GOP polls because they’re outsiders, non-politicians whose messages resonate with The Base.
I think they’re wrong.
I think they’re surging because, while charismatic, they are intellectually inarticulate and have no message, no coherent understanding of the complexities of the world in which we live and, as a result, reduce everything to simplistic sound bites – sound bites to which far too many are responsive.
Instead of thinking of America as an inclusive, pluralistic community with opportunity open to all, these 17 presidential hopefuls, these ideologues, have become advocates for the privileged and powerful – the rest of us be damned.
And, personally speaking, in the midst of this GOP madness, two Republicans from whom I would like to hear more, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich, have received little national traction because, sadly, many Americans don’t make the effort to listen and consider nuanced and challenging ideas and proposals.
That takes work.
On this Labor Day, while our employment rate is down to 5.1 percent, wages continue to stagnate. The wage inequality gap in America is the widest of any nation, and upward mobility is more limited than ever.
Immigrants and minorities are scapegoated, and an achievement that should have been heralded as one of the most consequential moments in American history – Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States – has been cynically abused by Republicans as an opportunity to further dispossess and disenfranchise other Americans, limiting access to the American dream.
On this Labor Day, while the dreams of many of my father’s generation have been achieved either for themselves or for their children, the dreams of so many others who aspire to inclusion, achievement, security and happiness are in danger of being aborted by selfish interests who falsely believe that success can only be achieved by limiting the dreams of others.
Instead, on this Labor Day let us honor Emma Lazarus’s plea:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.