Hooray for Labor

Clifford Styll's workersTo most of us, today’s holiday means a long weekend, an extra day off from the office — which, for those who dislike their job, is reason enough to celebrate. The occasion is solemn enough that banks, financial markets, and government offices remain closed. Amid the backyard barbecues and furniture discount sales the essential purpose of Labor Day is lost. Who or what do we honor with this national observance?

“All who are employed,” we think, is a misleading answer. We honor all who labor.

Only people who have never really worked — people who have never washed dishes, dug trenches, hauled trash — can misunderstand the distinction between working and laboring. Laborers do the jobs that nobody would freely choose if offered an alternative, and they do it for far less money than seems fair. Consider this: You would probably be willing to be a movie critic for, say, $20-an-hour, but you probably wouldn’t pick almonds for that wage. The great inequity in our market-driven system of compensation is that the easiest, most fun, most fulfilling jobs — the ones everyone would gladly do, qualified or not — pay substantially more than the spirit-crushing, repetitious, unhealthy jobs that no one does gladly.

Our “service” economy supposedly requires less labor and more management. Still, someone has to assemble our automobiles, transport our corn, weld our scaffolds. We who “toil” at nothing more back-breaking than yoga class ought toHappy Slaves making shoes for non-laborers be grateful to our fellow citizens (of America and, largely, the undeveloped world) for performing the tasks we disdain. Not everyone can be a rock star; almost anyone can paint a house or bag groceries. Few volunteer for those kind of jobs. We’re motivated by dread of these boring tasks to better ourselves through education and ambition precisely so that we can avoid labor and wallow in the comfort of executive armchairs and wireless keyboards. Those who haven’t managed that neat trick are condemned to lives with far less luxury. They work so that the Leisure Class may enjoy sailboats and bridge clubs, poetry and pottery.

Let us take a moment, then, on this Labor Day, to honor the men and women who actually labor. Without them, indolent thinkers and artists, brokers and lawyers, politicians and screenwriters — all who earn piles of money without breaking a sweat — would be hungry, cold, and helpless.

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