Labor Day Thoughts —by Jinny Batterson
Labor Day is a holiday first established in the U.S. during the second half of 19th century to honor the contributions to American prosperity of laborers of all kinds. During much of the 20th century, the holiday came to be associated with organized labor—labor unions. One of my aunts was for a number of years a member of the typesetters’ union, though her membership tended to get downplayed during family political discussions of the glories of the free enterprise system. My aunt has long since died, and the International Typographical Union to which she once belonged dissolved in 1986—its remaining members consolidated into either the Teamsters’ Union or the Communications Workers of America.
In the 21st century, labor unions have struggled. Since their peak of proportional membership in 1954, when over a third of the America’s wage and salaried workers belonged to labor unions, the influence and scope of U.S. unions has declined. Now less than 7% of private sector workers are unionized. A fair number of remaining unions seem destined to go the way of the ITU that helped furnish my aunt with good wages, benefits, and working conditions during her working life. No one factor seems to have precipitated union decline—automation, globalization, the rise of the information economy, institutional inertia, political maneuvering, scandals and corruption among some union leadership—all have likely played a part.
As a woman who has spent time both in and out of the paid workforce, I tend to view labor more broadly than as an activity performed just for wages or salary. One of the stalwart hymns of my somewhat stalwart Protestant upbringing was a call to labor:
“Come, labor on!
Who dares stand idle, on the harvest plain
While all around him waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
Go work today.”
Few of us any more are harvesters of grain. Fewer still are the missionaries that were probably in the mind of 19th century lyricist Jane Laurie Northwick. A more contemporary, somewhat more secular rendering of the same theme is Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” which states in part:
“I love people who harness themselves, …
who strain in the muck and the mud to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again…
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
Meaningful work well done provides much more than wages. It seems to me that for too long now we have confused work with “jobs.” Work and jobs are not the same. Not all jobs are worth doing. More than enough worthwhile work exists to go around, but we’ve too often lost some important connections between work and value(s). We’ve badly damaged our natural environment while creating more stuff than many of us need. We’ve relied unduly on “market forces” to distribute goods and services, so that some still lack for basics while others strain to find either storage space for their excess goods or time to indulge in any more services. We engage in costly wars that nearly always end in stalemate and in the need for extensive resettlement, restoration, and rebuilding. We have more gadgets than ever before, but fewer and fewer meaningful interactions with other people. When was the last time you were able to reach an actual person in “customer service” on your first try?
So I think on this Labor Day we might pause to consider how to redirect our labors just a bit. How to make whatever employment we have more rewarding for its own sake. How to think as if there are no boxes. We might find that more of us can exit the treadmill of excessive consumption. We might turn down the volume once in a while. We might be able to take steps toward reducing income disparities, resource misuse, both physical and mental sweatshops. All the bad trends we’ve engaged in are reversible. Reversing them will just take a heck of a lot of work…