“It was Ellis Island that ruined my shoulder.” A friend told me that recently. I pressed him to explain.
For many years he held a job etching signs for the sides of buildings, huge signs that are hand-made on enormous equipment, and the combination of a great deal of repetitive motion with the necessary delicate manipulation of heavy slabs of metal took its toll on his body. He blames the enormity of that one contract, the Ellis Island job, on his injury. Not the many other jobs that were similar, or the fact that he has continued etching large-scale objects, or that he has played electric guitar in a band for four decades on the side.
Someday, “The Ellis Island Job” will be a short story title from my fingers. Or the title of a song for his band.
Another job. 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. The would-be robber was apprehended, because she did her job as trained, and she learned that it was a fake gun at the trial.
Some more jobs. I have been friends with house cleaners, and every one of them through the years has reported to me 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 somehow combine the annoyance of micromanaging superiors with the perpetual possibility of random gore.
In “Punch the Clock,” I wrote,
Off the top of my head, from age 14 till 41 I held 14 different clock-punching jobs from almost the same number of employers, with a couple employers that hired me more than once. Each job that I held is one that someone has described to me as being something that they could not or would not now or ever 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 at best (to the best I can tell, car engines operate on gas, oil, and magic). I am reminded almost every day that writing, the career that chose me rather than the other way ’round, is, what’s the word they use? Boring. I suppose it is.
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.
September 5, 2016, was the 122nd 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 in those places as “May Day.” In the United States, this correlation is studiously ignored, as “May Day” here is associated with the practices and traditions of communist countries; and here communism is still regarded as a condition about which we must remain ever-vigilant and prepared to combat at a moment’s notice. It’s the other “C word” here.
We celebrate our Labor Day in September not because we hate communism and any possible association with 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 from that year onward in this country tended to be a commemoration of that specific day and its violence and also sometimes saw violent conflicts take place themselves. The developing labor unions suggested September, and the U.S. Government acquiesced. (This certainly does not describe the relationship between labor unions, workers, and the United States Government in the United States of America of September 2015.)
Through the 1880s, workers fought and sometimes died for the right to work in reasonable circumstances and for reasonable hours. They were often treated by employers as unreasonable in their demands. The type of capitalism that exists with profit as the only goal and with production achieved through the cheapest means possible is unfettered capitalism, and companies will take advantage of every opportunity to cut costs. Sometimes fair wages or general safety were where costs were cut. In this country, unfettered capitalism hit its lowest depth in the practice of slavery, which is free labor.
Thus, our September Labor Day is a true North American holiday. (Today is Labor Day in Canada, as well.) It is as American as the fight between slavery and employment, between being voiceless and fighting for the right to vote, a public voice. America’s greatest moments have come when we have fought together to achieve a greater fairness; our lowest, when interested powers have deemed “fairness for all” to be insufficiently fair for themselves and have thus fought against fairness with bullets and jail. (A similar fight for and against fairness is being fought nowadays.)
Labor Day was established to celebrate work, but in our 2015 world, how do we celebrate work here? We offer retail sales 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. One other thing about capitalism: Capitalism loves irony, just adores it. Never pays for it, just loves it from a distance.
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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 19 asks us to reflect on the word, “Overworked.” A question about work leads to me shirking by re-running a column.
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