A big week in the news – starting with Labor Day

This post is for middle or high school students who just started paying attention to the national (and international) news. This week there are quite a few “big deal” events going on and it would be nice if you had some time to unpack them. I hope your teachers will provide you with time to do that.

Today, Monday, Sept 5, is Labor Day — a day that seems to be celebrated by having Big Sales, but which actually has quite a rich history.

[My wife just informed me that my four year old son, who has a remarkable memory, was just told that he was not going to school today because it’s Labor Day.  His response: “Oh, can we go to the Duke library? They had suckers [candy] on this day.”]

After Labor Day, there will be a Republican debate on Wednesday night at the Reagan Library in California. It’s a Republican debate because the eight candidates in the debate are all trying to get the Republican nomination for president for the 2012 election. President Obama, as the incumbent president, basically has the Democratic nomination sewn up.


[quick quiz: here are the candidates’ names — can you match them with the faces above? Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum]

Then, on Thursday evening, President Obama is delivering a big speech about the economy. Paul Krugman wrote a column giving some context for the speech in today’s New York Times (note: both Krugman and the NYT are liberal sources). For some level of balance, here’s a column from the Washington Times, a more conservative source, which sarcastically has the headline Obama’s Speech Will Save Civilization.

And then, on Sunday, we have the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (if you are a middle school student, you had just been born when 9/11 happened — I wonder what you know about it). So there’s a lot to take in…

Let’s start with Labor Day, since that’s today.

What is Labor Day all about and why don’t we think deeply about our history? (On a related note, see my previous post to think about why the MLK Holiday has become a three day ski weekend for many people)

To explain Labor Day, let me share one of my favorite quotes from Studs Terkel, a famous radio journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author.

Here’s what I’d like you to do, to get a full multi-media experience — first, click on the upcoming link, which will open a video interview with Studs Terkel in a new window. As you listen, scroll down to follow the transcript of what he says. It will take a few minutes, but it’s well worth it.

Oh, one quick thing. Before we close, we are suffering what I call a national Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why Bush and Ashcroft [have] no memory of yesterday, as though there were no Depression, as though the free marketeers (I call them marketeer to rhyme with buccaneer) … The free marketeers, during the Great Crash of 1929, fell on their knees and begged the government, “Please help us out.” And so the New Deal helped them out with regulations. And [now] their grandchildren, whose granddaddies begged the government, say, “Too much big government,” when it comes to health, education, and welfare, and not Pentagon. So there’s this loss of memory. The young have been deprived of this. Many young kids are anti-union.

So here I am — and this is the anecdote — I’m waiting [for a bus]. I talk a lot, as you can gather, and sometimes down the street I go, talking to myself. I find the audience very appreciative. And so they know me at the block. They know I wrote some books. But they also know me as the old gaffer talks to everybody.

So I’m waiting for the bus. But this couple, I cannot reach. There’s a couple, I have to call them yuppies, because they are. Most young people are not. Most young are lost in the world, and wondering what … but these two are. He’s in Brooks Brothers, and he’s got the fresh-minted Wall Street Journal under his arm. And she’s a looker. She’s got Bloomingdale, Neiman-Marcus clothes, the latest issue of Vanity Fair. But I can’t … they won’t recognize me. My ego was hurt, you know. Everybody knows me! We start talking. The bus this day is late in coming. So I said, “I’m going to make conversation with them.” So I say, “Labor Day’s coming up.” That is the worst thing I could possibly have said. He looks at me. He gave me that look that Noel Coward would give to a speck of dirt on a cuff, and he turns away.

Now I’m really hurt, you know, my ego is hurt. The bus is late in coming. So when I say something, I know it’s going to get them mad. The imp of the perverse has me. And so I’m saying, “Labor Day, we used to march down State Street, UAW-CIO. ‘Which side are you on?’ ‘Solidarity Forever.'” He turns to me and he says, “We despise unions.” And I say [to myself], “Oh, I’ve got a pigeon here — no bus!” Suddenly, I fix him with my glittering eye like the ancient mariner, and I say, “How many hours a day do you work?” And he says, “Eight.” He’s caught! “Eight.”

“How come you don’t work eighteen hours a day? Your great grandparents [did]. You know why? Because in Chicago, back in 1886, four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day — it was the Haymarket affair — for you.” And I’ve got him pinned against the mailbox. He can’t get away, you know. The bus [hasn’t come], and he’s all trembling and she’s scared. She drops the Vanity Fair. I pick it up; I’m very gallant. I give her the Vanity Fair. No bus. Now I’ve got them pinned. “How many hours of week do you work?” He says, “Forty.” “How come you don’t work eighty hours, ninety hours? Because your grandparents [did], and because men and women got their heads busted fighting for you for the forty-hour week, back in the thirties.”

By this time the bus comes; they rush on. I never saw them again. But I’ll bet you … See, they live in the condominium that faces the bus stop. And I’ll bet you up on the 25th floor, she’s looking out every day, and he says, “Is that old nut still down there?”

Now, I can’t blame them, because how do they know? Who told them? What do they know about unions? So that’s what I mean about a national Alzheimer’s disease. It’s that aspect. So all these books deal with memory as well. What was it like during World War II? What was it like during the Depression? What’s it like being black in a white-dominant [society]? What’s it like growing old? What’s the job of a teacher or a welder like?

So, in a sense, it’s memory as well. And that’s what we’re dealing with.

If you’re hooked, and want to learn more, here’s the full transcript of that interview with the late Studs Terkel, and here’s a link to the start of the 54-minute YouTube video of the interview. If you have never heard Studs before, you owe it to yourself to listen. He has a great grandfatherly raspy voice. He sounds like he’s lived a full life.

So Labor Day is supposed to be about celebrating workers and working conditions — not about 3-DAY-SALES and candy at the library.

I encourage you to take some time to learn about Labor Day. See what you can find out by asking adults what they know about the holiday. Do they suffer from the same sort of national Alzheimer’s disease that Studs Terkel talked about?

To come full circle, here’s a clip from a news article about how President Obama (now also candidate Obama) will celebrate Labor Day:

Do you know what the AFL-CIO is? Let’s look it up, just to get some context here. Start with Wikipedia, then move on to other sources if you get interested:

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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