Monday, January 15, 2007

Of holidays and strikes

Here's a thought loosely inspired by the official commemoration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm increasingly dubious about the wisdom and propriety of marking the significance of a person's accomplishments through an official holiday. We don't yet have "Martin Luther King Day Sales" but it seems only a matter of time. No doubt early celebrations of Lincoln's birthday (now merged into "Presidents' Day") were not wholly commercialized, but as the event recedes in time, the commemoration becomes increasingly disconnected from the achievements commemorated.

Relatedly --- or at least it seems to me that there is a relation here --- I do not understand the notion of a "strike" as a form of political protest. I recently received an email calling for a "student strike" to protest President Bush's planned troop increase and the Iraq War more generally. Now I certainly understand that in order to hold a protest march and/or rally on a weekday, student participants need to skip school and employed adults need to skip work. But in such circumstances I would not characterize the skipping of school and work as a "strike." Rather, the skipping of school or work is a side-effect of being somewhere else. Nonetheless, genuine "strikes"---in which the protest CONSISTS IN skipping school or work---occur (more so among students than workers, I believe), and that is what was suggested in the email I received.

This seems misguided in the extreme. The point of a traditional labor strike is to make the employer suffer via lost profits (or, in the case of a public sector employee, to make the public suffer and thus exert pressure on the authorities to settle on terms favorable to the workers). This I get. But I don't see how junior high or high school students ditching school---but not attending a rally, march or even a "teach-in"---exerts pressure on anyone. Perhpas it makes a point in itself, but that point is likely to be muddled by the fact that many of the strikers experience the strike as a boon rather than a sacrifice.