Despite the national holiday and the cancellation of classes at several peer institutions including Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and the University of Pennsylvania, the college once again chose not to celebrate the Labor Day holiday this past Monday. While this policy dates back to the college’s founding in 1864, many faculty and staff were more vocal in their opposition to it than in past years. Such dissent comes in light of recent changes to the academic calendar, which will allow for the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time this February. Aside from practical concerns, such as arranging for day care and transportation, as well as the frustration of being away from one’s family during a day off, these individuals stressed the extent to which disregarding the Labor Day holiday is antithetical to the college’s mission as a promoter of social justice and an ally of worker’s rights.
“I see this as a gap between the institution’s ideals and its practices,” said Ben Berger, Professor of Political Science at the college. “We are a progressive institution that really thinks about things like class and labor, and we’re open for business on a federal holiday that is supposed to commemorate labor and the labor movement.”
Berger explained that by not recognizing the holiday, the college overlooks the historical significance of all that Labor Day represents in the same way that had previously been the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“All of the reasons given for why we should have been observing MLK day and not having class on that day — all of them hold for Labor Day with the exception of interfering with students being able to go and do things off campus as they might for MLK day,” Berger said. “I’m not sure that students would be doing things off campus to commemorate Labor Day, but the principle of the commemoration, and it being in tune with our values, and every worry about overlooking what the day stands for all hold for Labor Day as well.”
According to Berger, a common argument made amongst faculty and staff in favor of recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day was that to not do so made the college out of step with its peers. In regards to Labor Day, the case for institutional parity amongst the Tri-College Consortium is once again featuring prominently.
“Bryn Mawr and Haverford, which have far less finances in their endowment, give their employees Labor Day, so I’m not sure why exactly Swarthmore doesn’t give Labor Day,” said Kae Kalwaic, an Administrative Assistant in the Educational Studies Department who is involved in the Swarthmore Labor Action Project. “It doesn’t make sense to me since other colleges give off the holiday why Swarthmore doesn’t because again it’s that idea of celebrating what workers have done for everyone.”
Kalwaic worried that by not officially recognizing Labor Day, the college was indirectly shaping its students feelings towards the labor movement in general.
“I am concerned that the college has to model to students what they believe is important,” Kalwaic said. “I believe that by ignoring Labor Day, it sends the message to students that this isn’t so important. Labor unions are decreasing, they have less power, and I don’t know if young people are getting the message of the value that unions bring to social justice in the workplace.”
Berger articulated a similar concern.
“In this day and age when we’re studying inequality and job insecurity and all of their attending issues, a holiday commemorating the importance of labor and the contributions of labor seem to be all the more important to our educational mission,” Berger said. “People know less about Labor Day, and it would be valuable to have events on the day to educate those people that wanted to attend.”
In addition to the ideological inconsistencies surrounding the college’s policy towards Labor Day, both Berger and Kalwaic emphasized the ways in which holding class on a national holiday was particularly burdensome for faculty and staff who are also parents.
“By not giving the holiday off to our workers, it takes them away from family members who do have the holiday off, so it’s not a family-friendly policy,” Kalwaic explained. “If Swarthmore wants to be socially responsible, having family-friendly policies that make it easier for folks to get together with their families and have arrangements made so that their children can have daycare is very important.”
Kalwaic’s words were echoed by another Administrative Assistant at the college, who preferred to remain nameless.
“I feel like I’m being taken away from my family,” she said. “My kids aren’t in school today, and my sister is at home watching them. They’re pretty much grown, but I still wouldn’t want to leave them alone at home when there is no school. I’m lucky that at least I got someone to watch them, though.”
Another staff member, who also preferred to remain nameless, expressed a similar frustration.
“You think I want to be here right now?” he asked. “My wife is at home, my kids are at home, and I’ve been here since 6:30 AM. It’s a national holiday. I don’t know why we don’t celebrate it when everyone else does.”
Others, however, felt less burdened by having to work on the holiday.
Katherine Javian, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at the college, who is also a parent, explained that she was not affected too seriously by the college’s policy because her husband, who works at the University of Pennsylvania, had the day off.
“He was able to stay home, so he just watched my son for the day,” Javian explained. “If I had to teach and UPenn was open and my husband wasn’t available, I would obviously have had to figure out what to do with my son because his daycare had off too.”
Kalwaic also stressed the challenge of finding suitable childcare on a national holiday, explaining that for working parents, making such arrangements can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming.
“You have to have somebody who is caring, someone who is licensed, someone you can trust, and all those issues come to play especially if you have to think of something off the grid, like on Labor Day,” Kalwaic explained. “Labor Day is off the grid in terms of the fact that most people have the holiday off, and you don’t, and now you need to find some sort of accommodation.”
Kalwaic and Berger both explained that these challenges are more pronounced for some faculty and staff than others. Single parents, low income parents, employees with little flexibility in their schedules, and employees without offices all face challenges on national holidays that other faculty and staff do not.
“According to Global Post, average daycare prices run around $42 a day for an infant, $32 a day for a preschooler, and $23 a day for a school age child,” Kalwaic said. “Someone earning $13 an hour or $468 a week, would be paying a significant portion of their paycheck for childcare.”
Berger explained that in addition to the stratified financial impact of the holiday, faculty and those with offices were also better equipped to make last minute accommodations for their children because they could bring their children to work with them.
“The employment handbook stipulates that employees may be able to bring children to work ‘in an emergency situation,’” Berger explained. “But certain departments and offices may have more restrictive policies. Employees, including faculty, with private offices are probably in a better position to bring a child or children to campus than those who operate in shared space. To me there are so many of those factors on one side of the scale, it’s hard to see why we don’t just change policy the way we did with MLK.”
One way in which the college has sought to increase flexibility for employees on national holidays is through the inclusion of an “alternate day” in the holiday schedule for the 2015 to 2016 academic year. Until last year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was advertised as a suggested “alternate day” that faculty and staff could choose to observe if they did not use their “alternate day” elsewhere, but now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is recognized by the college, faculty and staff may elect to use their “alternate day” on Labor Day instead. It is important to note, however, that the addition of neither Martin Luther King, Jr. Day nor the “alternate day” to the college’s holiday schedule have increased the number of days off for faculty and staff during the academic year.
“Institutions are conservative when it comes to making changes and maybe it’s the case that we can start a conversation, but in my experience I haven’t gotten that much purchase when I’ve brought this up in the past,” Berger said. “I get head nods and smiles, but that’s it. Maybe now it will be different though. Maybe it’s the beginning of more people being receptive to this.”