This Labor Day, VII has put together a group project consisting of an essay by Shana Russell with photo stories from VII’s Sara Terry, Ed Kashi, Danny Wilcox Frazier, Maggie Steber, John Stanmeyer, and Christopher Lee and Nolan Ryan Trowe of the VII Mentor Program, about automation, domestic workers, bicycle messengers, the shuttering of factories, and more.
The origin story of Labor Day begins in 1882 with a one-day strike among American workers in New York City. They marched, 10,000 strong, while carrying signs and the tools of their trades in the name of unity. The strike ended with a picnic and celebration. A time and place where workers could gather and build community without anyone looking over their shoulders.
Once Labor Day became official, celebration, in the absence of resistance, became the center. In New York, one might have seen parades with costumes. In Atlanta, a brass band. In Los Angeles, a picnic on the beach, followed by dancing and fireworks.
Our contemporary Labor Day celebrations have come a long way from that first strike. This year, the vast majority of Americans will be barbecuing. Or shopping. Or putting their summer whites back into storage. Or choosing the rosters for their fantasy football teams.
This year, there will be only a few marchers waving banners and shouting slogans. Causing some to lament that we have lost the “real” meaning of Labor Day.
And to these pessimists, I would say that protest and jubilation are woven into the fabric of American identity. Enslaved Africans saw the Christmas holiday as a time to embrace hope and togetherness through song and celebration. It was also an ideal time to escape thanks to relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels. Union organizers during the depression sang folk songs when they marched. Civil Rights demonstrators sang spirituals. These traditions continue, even today. If you happened to walk by Occupy Wall Street at just the right moment, the soundtrack sounded like something from a different time.
Being a part of the working class means rejoicing during the dark times by remembering that the fight for our rights can only be sustained if we fight together.
Still, there is a figurative shadow dampening this year’s celebratory spirit. What has been done can also be undone and the current administration is responsible for the largest decline in workers’ rights of this generation. The gig economy means that, for many, an eight-hour work day or five-day work week is a distant dream. Union membership hovers at less than 11%. The National Labor Relations Board, the body that created labor standards, has been stacked with new members who want nothing more than to put power in the hands of bosses rather than workers. Overtime protections have been rolled back. Policies that regulate workplace injury and safety inspections have been relaxed. And those who are charged with protecting us choose, instead, to protect those who steal wages, harass women in the workplace, and discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Nevertheless, the workers persisted. In July, Senator (and presidential candidate) Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jaypal introduced the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, the first national legislation guaranteeing basic labor protections for nannies, housecleaners, and home healthcare workers. Striking teachers, support staff, and bus drivers in 11 states successfully achieved salary increases, reduction in class sizes, delays in school closures, and district-wide budget increases. Dockworkers in Los Angeles are holding strong in the fight against automation and the loss of jobs. Fast food workers all over the country are leading the charge for a $15 minimum wage.
“It’s easy to see why unions are doing so poorly,” Donald Trump quipped during last year’s Labor Day observance. It’s even easier to see the resilience and determination of workers all over the country. These are our friends and neighbors. The people who teach and take care of our children. The people we see and engage with every day, who fight for our dignity as workers, which is exactly what those 19th century striking revelers wanted all along. And while we are all enjoying our day at the beach, somehow these folks will be working the longest hours they will work all year.
They may not be striking (though perhaps they should). But think about what a difference it would make to treat them with kindness. To see them, and to see ourselves in them. Though the erosion of our rights under Trump has been swift, the climb back uphill will require far more stamina than we can build in merely a day. Though we might not be together on the factory floor or out in the streets, we can still treat our fellow workers with dignity and pride. It’s what those who came before us would want us to do. Take one day to shape what happens every day after.
Sara Terry — Automation
Experts predict that automation will eliminate as many as 75 million jobs in the United States by 2030 — globally, that figure is 375 million. At the Port of Los Angeles in California, one of the busiest seaports in the world, union workers are fighting back against steps to increase automation which will eliminate longshore jobs. Maersk’s efforts to begin laying the infrastructure for automated cargo handlers were met with protests by thousands of longshore workers in spring 2019 and resistance from city and county officials. Nevertheless, the Port of Los Angeles granted permission to Maersk to begin the work in July 2019. Of the 44 shipping terminals in the world that are either semi-automated or fully automated, just five are in the United States.
Maggie Steber — Midtown Manor
Midtown Manor is an assisted living facility in the middle of Hollywood, Florida, just two blocks down from the old city center with cafes and stores and on weekends, antique car festivals. There are 100 residents of various ages and with various challenges, whether it be aging, physical or emotional. They and all their needs are tended to by 30 employees, working round-the-clock shifts. Midtown is about 40 years old, having been a tourist hotel in the past. It became an assisted living facility 20 years ago.
I know many of the residents and caregivers because my mother lived here for the last seven years of her life. She suffered from memory loss. I know her life was extended by the care of these caregivers and especially a select few who seem to have hearts as big as a mountain. They are not paid very much for the kind of work they do. They are mainly women, mainly immigrants, either here legally or US citizens. They bathe and dress people who need help, clean the rooms, change the sheets, wash the clothes, mop the floors, move people around, serve meals, and feed those who need help.
And they help with the passing of residents, always emotional.
What’s different about Midtown Manor, as I looked at a total of 50 places for my mother, is the heart put into caregiving. The director, Madeline Schmidt, is a warrior for her residents, especially the elderly ones, many of whom have no family to come and visit. Madeline was my mother’s main caregiver and treated her like my mother was hers. And we became like sisters. Over the years, Madeline has risen in the ranks. She ran the place anyway before the title came. She has a heart of gold. I return at least once a month to visit the people I still know and especially the Friday Happy Hour when there are games, dancing, cake, and prizes!
There is a growing need for more caregivers, especially in Florida. The jobs are there but people have to be trained officially in order to be caregivers at Midtown. But the training makes a huge difference. When I see how hard everyone works and pitches in together, and how they treat the residents, even the most difficult ones — and there always are — I think these hard-working immigrant women doing what might be the hardest job are to be saluted for their work ethic and their great hearts.
John Stanmeyer — Woven Roots Farm
Working in the rain on Labor Day 2019, Jen and Pete Salinetti have been organic farmers in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts for 19 years. Their farm, Woven Roots farm in Tyringham, feeds more than 500 people each week across the region, a vital source of nutritious healthy food.
Nolan Ryan Trowe — State of Affairs
They are perhaps the most traditional end-of-summer event of all — county fairs and state fairs. They wrap up over Labor Day weekend, all cotton candy and hot dogs, couples kissing and kids earnestly brushing their sheep one last time, hoping to get that blue ribbon, best-of-show. If you stop to think, and look closely enough, you’ll see the workers, too — serving food, picking up trash, running the rides. They are worth a second thought, and a third. Because as much as we love our Labor Day weekend fairs and barbecues and parties, they are what the day is all about: American workers and the distance we’ve come, in terms of labor protections and laws — and the distance we still have to go.
Ed Kashi — Domestic Workers
In New Jersey, one of the country’s richest states, a disturbingly high number of working people struggle to afford the basic necessities. In 2016, the United Way of North Jersey found that 37% of people in the state earned too much to qualify for federal assistance but are unable to save against the high cost of living, and qualify as working poor. Recently, Newest Americans partnered with the Free Press’ Network of New Jersey journalists, Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Public Planning, and coLab Arts, to tell the story of individuals that do not have adequate representation in the media. In 2018, the United Way found that the percentage of people who qualified as working poor had risen to 41%.
Danny Wilcox Frazier — Abandoned
Littered across the Midwest, like carcasses on the side of a road, the skeletal remains of Middle America’s industrial past are at once beautiful artifacts and torturous reminders of what once was. That tension plays out as those who remain in the Midwest’s broken industrial landscape try to overcome the nostalgia for the region’s prosperous history while witnessing the destructive force of abandonment and despair. Decaying factories are a constant antagonist while walking, driving, and trying to dream in Middle America. Once a union strong force in labor’s rise to prominence economically and politically, the Midwest has struggled to survive for decades now as factory after factory has been shuttered, the working class hero a lone memory of times past.
Sara Terry — Union Picnic, Iowa City
On a hot and humid Labor Day in Iowa, union workers turned out to celebrate — and Democratic candidates showed up to campaign. At a Teamsters Local 238 picnic in City Park in Iowa City, city, county and state Democratic candidates and officials came to pledge their support for unions. Local campaign workers for the top presidential candidates set up tables — and Joe Biden showed up to shake hands and pose for photos. After years of decline, support for unions now stands at 64 percent in recent polls — a 50-year high.
Christopher Lee — Bicycle Couriers
While New York City has set a precedent for the world by setting a minimum wage ($17/hour) for Uber and Lyft drivers, bicycle couriers, even on the same platforms as the rideshare drivers, are not guaranteed such pay. Some apps even skim off of the in-app tips.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research for the Cornell University Worker Institute, called those who deliver food on bike “the most vulnerable workers in digital labor.”
In case you missed it …
Check out our other posts on Medium: “VII’s Lights for Liberty Coverage,” “What’s in your bag? VII photographers show us their gear,”“Ethics in Photojournalism,” “All About Gear,” “World Press Freedom,” and “Fake News”.