Labor Day is more than a long weekend at the end of summer. Labor Day was established in 1887 in recognition of rights and needs of U.S. workers. Even though Labor Day preceded the massive growth of unions in the first half of the 20th century, it still stands as a tribute to the success of U.S. unions to reduce inmate and child labor, reduce workdays to reasonable 10- and 8–hour days, and to give laborers the ability to contest powerful corporations and government downsizing.
Many credit the labor rights movement in the U.S. with providing the foundation for various waves of civil rights movements – including most famously the southern Black civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s focused heavily on labor justice.
I mention this here for an important reason. We readily acknowledge the Deaf civil rights movement, grounded most visibly in the Deaf President Now campaign in 1988. But we forget that there has never been a Deaf labor rights movement.
Today, American Sign Language is more recognized than ever, and the term “Deaf culture” is accepted by all but the most stodgy individuals. Many Deaf individuals, however, live in poverty because jobs are not available to them or they can’t access them. Deindustrialization in the Midwest has meant fewer steady manufacturing and shipping jobs, jobs which attracted critical masses of Deaf workers in the past. The dominance of low-wage service industry jobs has negatively affected Deaf workers for a different reason: service jobs depend heavily on “communication skills” (in spoken English, of course) preventing many Deaf workers from being integrated into the new post-industrial workforce.
The new Deaf pillars – Deaf schools, Deaf services organizations, ASL classes, interpreting programs – provide jobs for many Deaf professionals, as do some government agencies. It is common in immigrant communities for immigrants to specialize in a particular industry in order to provide jobs for peers, and to use those businesses as springboards to future success. However, it is still almost unheard of to find businesses that are ran by Deaf individuals and where Deaf workers can find employment. Despite the explosion of hearing people taking ASL, none seem to use their language skill to recruit and employ Deaf persons within the U.S. corporate market.
Today let’s not forget the “true meaning” of Labor Day and remember the importance of workers’ rights for our Deaf neighbors – and everyone else, too.