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Labor Day: Reportback from the Annual Picnic Ritual

Thousands of workers representing unions as diverse as AFSCME, SEIU, the Teamsters, the Carpenters, the Longshoremen, and etc showed up at the annual Oaks Park Labor Day picnic today. I often attend this event, and have been very conflicted about it. I think I've finally figured out why.
I feel a guilty sort of pleasure at the whole amusement park atmosphere. I mean, it's not something I would usually do, and it feels weird to find myself there. It becomes something of an identity crisis for me when I run into people I know from other parts of my life, people who make remarks about how they would never have thought that this would be "my kind of thing," whatever that means. And in a sense, they're right.

I do not usually go to places where "fun" and "family entertainment" are carefully sold commodities. So I avoid amusement parks and skating rinks and places like this most of the time. But I am drawn to Oaks Park every year because, hey, it's labor day, right? It feels like an obligation as a worker more than just empty, mindless amusement. And once I get there, I do confess to a certain warm feeling of nostalgia for some of the things I knew as a child and long ago drifted away from. I have memories of roller skating and thrill rides and family picnics that come bubbling forth to make me smile here, even as I wander among the booths for various workers' rights organizations and political candidates and immigrant rights groups. And that is where the conflict arises.

Because every year, I am happy for the nostalgic escape. I ride rides, and maw on garden burgers, and listen to speeches from among wooden tables buzzing with yellow jackets. I look for friends around the PCASC and Jobs with Justice booths, I pick up information on various campaigns, and when I see Mike Donahue, I grouse loudly, if half-heartedly, about corporate media's lies. But I am self conscious about the whole thing, because I know this is not really making a difference in the world. Not yet.

There is too much escape here, and not enough rising consciousness. Too much consumption, and not enough realization of our power, our strength, our solidarity as workers. That, I finally realize, is what bothers me every year about this. As long as we merely float through the day in mindless escape, it is only a bone we are thrown. Tomorrow, we will be expected to return to our day jobs and go on with our business, chained to the capitalist grindstone. Even most of the things we think we are doing in solidarity with each other are only more manifestations of the ever-never-changing consumerist mindset we have been brainwashed to exhibit in every circumstance. From the useless rubber bracelets we are offered to show support for different unions, to the variously colored ribbons (and now ribbon-shaped stickers and magnets) that we are supposed to don to symbolize our support for various causes, they are all just merchandise when we come right down to it. Buttons and fliers and refrigerator magnets, stickers and letter openers and sloganed keyholders. All are just more wasted resources, more things we pick up and take from the earth that, when we get home, we realize we did not really need after all.

Even the refreshments we were offered disturbed me today. I have often seen the Union picnic as a breaking of bread with my fellow workers, a moment of communion and solidarity. But today, I noticed that the soft drinks being offered for scrip were, of all things, all Pepsi products. If any of us is really taking seriously the political implications of labor day, how is it possible that no one gave a thought to the connection between what we buy, what we consume, and what we are supporting? How is it possible that an exploitive, lethal corporate monster like Pepsi was allowed to smile down from banners above our heads? How did we allow our children to ingest the toxic waste from those blue and red cans? I mean, sure, at least it wasn't Coke...but how different is Pepsi? It was almost shocking to watch people mindlessly guzzling down can after can while hard core labor bands played on in the background. I know many of the organizers and the volunteers from many of the unions that were there today, I know all of their hearts were in the right places, and that they believe in the work they do. I appreciate the labor they put into feeding others today. I really do. That's why it is so scary to me to realize just how lost we really are in this consumerist lifestyle that buys us and sells us and delivers us to the marketplace the way the cattle cars delivered prisoners to internment camps. We're so caught up in our role as mindless consumers that we don't even think about it anymore.

I stayed long enough today to listen to a few speeches from Mayor Potter, and Commissioner Leonard, and a few others. Sam adams was there (happy birthday, Sam), and so were a lot of other folks who were willing to get up and make impassioned (and less impassioned) pleas for the workers to rise up and take back the power that is ours. But we could barely hear their voices above the din of crackling grills and empty conversations and people screaming on rides. As I looked around under the trees, I saw people eating and talking and staring off into the distance. Almost everyone seemed to be completely ignoring the speeches. I saw people holding plastic toys and cans of soda and all manner of things they had purchased from vendors all over the park, but I saw no one straining to hear words of solidarity and awakening. Clearly, these were people who just wanted to be left alone, to enjoy this bone they were thrown. I wanted to stand up on a park bench and shout revolutionary slogans, just to see if anyone would listen. I pictured Emma Goldman, hoisted up on the back of a wagon, hollering out cries of resistance and revolt. I imagined peoples' heads turning, eyes growing brighter, faces dawning with looks of recognition that we are, after all, stronger than we think. But neither I, nor anyone else, found the fire to get up and awaken the masses, to touch off the spark that might ignite the firestorm of uprising, awakening us from our consumer-sleep and into our true strength and power as workers.

Some other time, I guess.
I feel ya 04.Sep.2006 19:46

silly red

Hi Cat, I really know how you feel. I wasn't at the park today I had to work (yuk). But in general I've sort of felt the same, and been aparty to those that stare off looking for something far away, finding nothing and expecting nothing but hoping so much that it would happen (what ever it is....). Life taxs the spirit out of us and we no longer resist. Not because we don't know though, but because we know and it hurts, or at least it's this way with me. I miss the days when the fire burt wild and are hearts could carry the weight.

But remeber that life rolls like waves and soon if you watch you'll see the next crest coming. Then all we have to do is ride it to the logical end.

In love and War

when 05.Sep.2006 08:04

bois piquant

In a fair number of places where people do "wake up" to one another, there is a brief honeymoon period, then people "wake up" to all the skeletons in one another's closets.

I've seen a number of organizations either a) fall apart or b) polarize, and marginalize the people most vocally representing "the problem" (these polarized tactics also serve to keep the group small and powerless- though of course very righteous).

In my estimation, when we learn that in a society of such endemic abuse, we have all unknowingly (or knowingly) participated in one another's abuse as well as in one another's empowerment...when we can heal the abuse while at the same time strengthening our celebration of each other...then we'll be able to afford to "wake up". And then people will.

People are already waking up, too, in small or large ways. When I'm at my best, I know how to look for the seedling awarenesses in self or others, and how to nourish them. When I'm at my best, I do it in a way that makes it clear that I'm just doing this as another person, not as a person with the power-over it takes to dictate what is good and what is bad.

When I appreciate, I appreciate for myself, and when I stand forcefully up to others (which I have) I hopefully do so in a way that makes clear that I want to learn from the other person, but until convinced will quite strongly do what I want to do, and not what they would have me do.

When I'm at my best, this is what I do. And I've seen miracles...

Thanks 05.Sep.2006 09:23

Den Mark, Vancouver

Terrific article. Labor picnics, like many other affinity events, are cathartic & little else. People come together & think that coming together is an end in itself, instead of a prelude to action. And often whatever angst manifests at these events is directed toward what others are doing or not doing, instead of what we ourselves are doing or not doing. Hence, mistakes like Pepsi. I wonder how many people left that picnic & stopped at a wal-mart on the way home. It's apparently difficult for people to feel partly responsible what's wrong in the world. Difficult for people to see the whole picture, instead of focusing on one or two parts. Difficult for people to sacrifice for change, or to just be the change, as the saying goes. I've been to "environmentally-conscious" events where bottled water was offered, straight out of the water-as-commodity script. Education is part of the answer, to be sure, but so is will. And the will to get educated is part of what's lacking. And the will to examine every tiny aspect of our day-by-day routines. I've been told that people are "too busy making ends meet" to get deeply & regularly involved in real change. That excuse is very tedious. Most people are in fact NOT "too busy". Unless watching tv is being "busy". The people of Oaxaca & Chiapas are not "too busy". But they are not distracted by entertainment & consumption addictions that narcotize & paralyse the working class in the good-ol' hoo-hess-hay. One hour per week. One hour per week would not break anyone's time-bank. Yet only a statistical handful of people are willing to give one hour per week, to work for justice & peace & the environment. So let's raise our styrofoam cups o' Bud & praise the labor movement, ..... which does not exist anymore.

aboslutely 05.Sep.2006 09:29

solidarity is just a word

right on. the soft-drinks kill... if people want to do that to themselves we can't stop them, but we can show them why it's not making them any healthier.
as for the whole consumer culture. it's hard to break out of a prison you don't know you're in. folks need to feel that realization that their so called freedom is really opression in disguise.

2 discouraged 05.Sep.2006 12:40


Very good article. It is hard to be aware and moving among others who have yet to learn, but try not to be discouraged. Change takes a lot of time. The Oakes Park picnic is a party of long standing and I bet a lot of people who were there just came for the fun as usual, but are well on the road to discovery. Maybe that was not the time to stand up and make statements, but a time to play and enjoy family. Too bad about the Pepsi, though, for sure. Some of the ideas Den Mark put forward are already changing more lives than he/she might know. A lot of us go quietly about the business of Peace and community. Do not lose heart. We are out here.

Thanks II 05.Sep.2006 19:24

Den Mark, Vancouver

There are indeed people going about quietly doing the work of peace & community, but NOT "a lot". Sorry. Example: data once showed, & maybe still do, that only 5% of eligible donors give blood, to cover everybody else's needs. That stat told me, & tells me, plenty. Here's another. Why are there waiting lists for body part transplants. Because too few people think to arrange to donate hearts, livers, kidneys, bones, corneas, & so on, upon death. Just about every dead body has something that could be transplanted to someone else. But most people would rather spend fortunes to dress up dead bodies for burial in obscene caskets & vaults. It's insane. Meanwhile, people die for lack of body parts. This is a focused example of my point, which can be extrapolated to many many other matters. Education is part of this, but how stupid do people have to be, to continue the one example, to not know by now that they should arrange for transplants in advance of death, so that someone else might live. The stupidity & selfishness of this "culture" are staggering. However, it would be worse, but for the good work done by a few. I am thankful.