Planet MoneyStuff You Should KnowThis American Life September 7, 2015 | By

An Oral History of Labor Day

Today is Labor Day. Here is a Soundcheck of some great podcast episodes to give you a sense about why we celebrate it and what the future holds.


Just about every U.S. federal holiday there are a plethora of think pieces, tweets, and interviews about how America is not appreciative, pious, or reverent enough; we have lost sight of why this particular day is important. I do like when people bring up the issue to make a public policy point or to present data, but I groan when they start to infer that America is in decline because of this irreverence. Labor Day is not much different.  It is more than an off-school day, a long weekend, and a sweet deal on the four-piece living room set you have always wanted from your local furniture store’s blowout sales event. It is grounded in the poor, hazardous, and unjust conditions many workers faced from employers and their struggle to achieve a voice in our nation’s values.


The Memory Palace
– “Episode 1: Horrible Deaths”

In the very first episode of The Memory Palace, “Horrible Deaths,”  is just how it sounds. Host Nate DiMeo gives us five gruesome and morbid stories pulled directly from the New York Times archives on how people died “horrible deaths”. Most of these stories are workplace accidents from the 1800s. They serve as an excellent primer on why we need some regulations on how businesses should operate so that their workers stay safe.


Majority Report with Sam Seder
– “9/7 Labor Day Show

Federally established in 1894 as a direct result of the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman Strike, Labor Day serves as, “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” The establishment of Labor Day represented a major win and legitimization for unions and organized labor all over the world.

Sam Seder, the host of the Majority Report, a daily political talkshow, has done a wonderful job compiling historical speeches of influential past labor leaders for the holiday. This year he cut a new episode (here is the old one). Albeit a sloppy of production, it really gives us a great perspective into the labor movement. Pulitzer prize winning Studs Terkel tells us how workers advocating for the eight-hour day were hanged; first female cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, reveals the roots of minimum wage; President Harry Truman gives us a justification for vetoing the Taft-Hartley Act; president of the United Automobile Workers, Walter Reuther, helps delineate how the Cold War threatened worker’s rights; and finally rare audio from perennial Socialist Party of America candidate Eugene V. Debs delivers a stump speech based on the proletariat. I really appreciate the umbrage Seder took in putting this piece together, because If you are fan of speeches, like I am, this is a great listen regardless of your politics.


Stuff You Should Know
– “How Labor Unions Work”

If speeches aren’t your thing, co-hosts Charles “Chuck” Bryant and Josh Clark on the Stuff You Should Know podcast give us an excellent oral history on unions and the purpose they serve in the episode, “How Labor Unions Work”.

Bryant and Clark jokingly start their podcast by saying that popular podcaster Ira Glass of This American Life would be their Jimmy Hoffa-esque leader of the podcaster’s union. Coincidentally, This American Life recently released “Petty Tyrant” an episode detailing how Steve Raucci, a school maintenance man, worked his way up to become a boss and a union leader. Raucci used his position of power to abuse, torture, and terrorize his employees and their families.

This American Life – “Petty Tyrant”

The Raucci story is important because it can shows the extreme of how a person can wield their power and influence not only as a union leader, but also from a position of management. It also helps shape the narrative as to why the rigid structure of unions are falling out of favor with workers. The prolonged decline of the labor movement has definitely hurt the political clout of unions in their modern day fights like a higher minimum wage.

(Sorry for the lack of an embed; TAL makes it hard after a certain number of weeks.)


Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates
– “Abolish the Minimum Wage”

Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates, a debate podcast show focusing mostly on policy issues hosted and moderated by John Donvan, re-aired its “Abolish the Minimum Wage” episode this past Labor Day. Even though this episode aired in 2013, it is incredibly informative debate with strong points on both sides providing the moral, ethical, and economic reasoning as to why the minimum wage should or should not be abolished.


Planet Money
and The Machines

recent National Labor Relations Board ruling allowing unions to negotiate treat franchise brands as a joint-employer, and President Obama’s executive orders giving paid sick leave and higher minimum wage for federal contractors has opened the floodgates to a possible acceleration of a minimum wage hike. Many fear that a raise in the minimum wage will lead to many workers being replaced by robots. Popular Youtuber CGP Grey, co-host of podcasts Hello Internet and Cortex, sees this transition as inevitable.

Planet Money, did an innovative six episode series on the relationship between man, machine, and work:

  1.  “When Luddites Attack” gives us the history of the “Luddites.”
  2. “Humans vs Robots” pits WordSmith, a news writing bot, against “wicked fast reporter” Scott Horsley of NPR on who can write an article faster (and better):
  3. In, “The Machine Comes to Town,” Adam Davidson takes us to a manufacturing plant in South Carolina where machine and humans have to get along:
  4. “I, Waiter” takes us to a few restaurants where robots are slowly starting to take over:
  5. “The Last Job” is an experimental and abstract episode (a rarity for the Planet Money team) in partnership with The Truth podcast that heads into non-fiction by predicting what it would sound like when there are no more jobs:
  6. Finally, “This Is The End” challenges the notion that technological advances will fully replace humans using the introduction of the tractor as an example.

Planet Money hits a home run in each one of these episodes because they really get you to think about what the future may hold for the average worker. Personally, I think technology will eventually replace a vast majority of workers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but it will be the death knell to the labor movement. So it begs the question: how will Labor Day be be remembered?


Thanks for reading. As a bonus, here’s a poem. Thanks to Billy Collins for the reading.

“I Hear America Singing”
Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

About the Author

Saheel Mehta is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he likes to cover podcasts relating to science, sports, and politics. Right now, his favorite shows are The Memory Palace and Reply All. Find him on Twitter @saheelmehta, or by email at saheel@audiologue.xyz.

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