While it's a nice gesture, depending on brands to give you the gift of time off is kind of sad
For most of us, Labor Day is little more than a last hurrah marking the unofficial end to summer. One last chance to hit the beach or head out of town before settling into an autumn routine. In truth, the holiday has its origins in the bloody Pullman strike of 1894, where widespread confrontations between railroad workers striking against lowered wages and federal troops acting to support the interests of capital led to 30 deaths.
President Grover Cleveland’s introduction of the holiday was meant to appease some of his supporters after the incident while also recognizing the growing unionist movement in the latter half of the 19th century. Through those unions, workers have won concessions like the 40-hour work week (and 8-hour workday), minimum wage, paid vacations, and many others. Most of these labor rights seemed unrealistic at the time, but are now perhaps taken for granted—at least as far as the effort it took to acquire them is concerned.
Of course, years of pro-corporate policies beginning in the latter stages of the 20th century have increasingly rendered unions obsolete. And with many Americans just barely scraping by, the idea of taking a long weekend for Labor Day is increasingly a prospect that many cannot afford.
That’s where our merciful brand overlords come in. Recognizing that one in four hard-working Americans are stuck at work on Labor Day, Maxwell House wants to give one of them the chance to win a single paid day off. In order to be eligible, all you have to do is tweet "@Maxwell_House using #LaborOnLaborDay and #contest and share a photo of yourself or someone you know working on Labor Day,” according to a press release.
To introduce the campaign, they’ve told the story of Ron Kline, a truck driver from Ohio who had worked for over 53 years without a day off before Maxwell House offered him a paid vacation. While it’s a just reward for Ron’s unflinching work ethic, the fact that he felt he couldn’t take any time off (let alone retire after so many years on the job) is an indictment of the economic system that works people like him to the bone. There’s no doubt that coffee is great at pepping you up for another grueling day at work. But wouldn’t it be better to live in a world that doesn’t force us to ingest massive doses of caffeine to simply endure another day on the job in exchange for an increasingly meager paycheck?
Maxwell House’s efforts to offer what should be a universal guarantee in the form of random chance isn’t the only attempt to monetize the rot of late capitalism. We’re living in a time when a game show will pay off your student loans for you and freelancers can syphon some of their paycheck to a third party so they can get their money in time to pay rent. It’s clearly easier to profit off of the precarious state of our personal finances than it is to take systemic steps to address the problems that cause them in the first place. This is especially true for companies whose executives would feel threatened by a more equitable redistribution of profits.
So while it seems nice that a company like Maxwell House is putting the spotlight on hardworking Americans, their effort registers as more unsettling than uplifting given its context. The best way to honor hard working Americans is to uphold the dignity of their work while restoring their sense of economic security.
That will only happen when laborers wield whatever level of collective power they have left to extract concessions from capital, not when corporations decide to promote their own brands through random and fleeting acts of benevolence. Workers of the world, wake up and smell the coffee.