The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 1 asks, “In honor of Labor Day in North America, tell us what’s the one job you could never imagine yourself doing.” (Canada celebrates Labour Day on this first Monday in September as well, but with a U fancifying the name.)
“It was Ellis Island that ruined my shoulder.” A friend told me that today. I pressed him to explain. For many years he held a job etching signs for the sides of buildings, huge signs hand-made on enormous lathes, and the combination of a great deal of repetitive motion with delicate manipulation of heavy slabs of metal took its toll on his body. He blames the enormity of the Ellis Island job on his injury. He now works on a smaller scale and forges swords for a living.
My sister is a bank teller and on one of her first days on the job, the bank was held up at gunpoint. More precisely, she had a gun pointed at her. (It turned out that the gun was a dummy, but my sister is no dummy herself and she did everything as trained, as if the robber could have shot her.)
I have been friends with house cleaners, and every one of them has reported that they have had “that one house” every week whose owners either live disgustingly or insist on creating the image of living disgustingly, perhaps to test whether the cleaner can keep a closed mouth. I will spare you details.
I have police officer and firefighter friends, and their stories of everyday life on the job combine the terror of micromanaging superiors with the perpetual possibility of random gore.
Please travel back with me to August 21, when I wrote in “Punch the Clock,” “Off the top of my head, from age 15 till 40 I held 14 different clock-punching jobs from almost as many employers, with a couple employers that hired me more than once.” Each job is one that someone has described to me as something they could not or would not now or never do. Car mechanic friends have told me they can not imagine standing in front of a class and talking, which I have done; but I hate grease and do not comprehend mechanical engineering. Theirs is a job I misunderstand (car engines operate on magic, to the best I can tell) at best.
It is said that if you choose a job you love to do, it can not be called “work.” Everyone I cited above loves his or her work. I love whatever it is that I do, too. Work performed with a sense of love and duty is work worth celebrating.
Today, September 1, 2014, marks the 120th national Labor Day, a federal holiday, in the United States. For a decade before 1894, several states around the country started to mark Labor Day with parades and celebrations of work and workers. Labor Day is the American equivalent of International Labor Day, which is celebrated in many countries around the world on May 1 and is often referred to as “May Day.” In the United States, this correlation is ignored, as “May Day” here is associated with the practices and traditions of communist countries; thus, it is not a good thing. We celebrate our Labor Day in September not because we hate communism and its holidays but because a workers’ protest in Chicago for an eight-hour workday in May 1886 ended in a massacre, the “Haymarket Massacre,” and Labor Day-type celebrations in May tended to be about that violent day. The developing labor unions suggested September, and the government acquiesced. (This does not describe the relationship between labor unions, workers, and the United States government in the United States of 2014.)
Through the 1880s, workers fought and sometimes died for the right to work in reasonable circumstances and for reasonable hours. Capitalism with profit as the only goal and with production achieved through the cheapest means is unfettered capitalism, and companies will take advantage of every opportunity to cut costs, such as wages or safety; in this country, unfettered capitalism hit its lowest depth in the practice of slavery, which is free labor.
Thus, it is a true North American holiday. It is as American as the fight between slavery and employment, between being voiceless and fighting for the right to vote. America’s greatest moments have come when we have fought together to achieve greater fairness; our lowest, when interested powers have deemed “fairness for all” to be insufficiently fair for themselves and have fought fairness with bullets and jail.
Labor Day was established to celebrate work, but in our 2014 world we celebrate work with retail sales offered in stores that do not pay their workers double-time or time-and-a-half for the privilege of working on what is supposed to be a vacation day. Capitalism 1, Fetters 0.