Labor put forth by jobholders enriches lives
September 5, 2009
Freedom New Mexico
Labor Day for most Americans has evolved into just another excuse to have a three-day weekend, perhaps with a nod to the unofficial end of summer and a celebration of the first week of college football.
Perhaps this is appropriate considering that of the federally mandated holidays this is the one that began most obviously with the intention of promoting rather specific and relatively narrow political interests.
First celebrated with a parade in 1882 in New York City, Labor Day was inspired by similar trade union demonstrations in Canada. It was explicitly designed to further the interests of the burgeoning labor and trade union movement. Then in 1894, when federal troops and U.S. marshals killed a number of people involved in the Pullman Strike and President Grover Cleveland sought reconciliation with organized labor, he quickly pushed through Congress a bill to make Labor Day a federal holiday.
So Labor Day was explicitly devoted to organized labor, to unions. Into the 1960s, as many as 30 percent of American workers were union members. But for various reasons, including globalization, deregulation and ensuing increased competition, today only 7 percent of workers belong to a union. Thus trade unionism has less widespread resonance among Americans than in our recent past. So we just take the holiday without reflecting much on its meaning, if any these days.
It might not be a bad idea, however, to take a certain forgetfulness about the sectarian origins of Labor Day a step further and think about labor in a broader sense.
It has been traditional to associate labor with physical labor and to think of “labor” as a social class that performs certain specific kinds of work. It might be more appropriate to expand our understanding to celebrate all manner of work.
There may be a South Sea island where it is possible to lie on a hammock and have enough fruit to sustain life readily available for the picking, while on occasion a wild pig barbecues itself to add variety — but we doubt even that. The salient fact of human life is that we have to put forth some effort — to work — to sustain it. Even begging on the street is work.
Work for human beings, then, is necessary and even ennobling. But it isn’t just physical labor that counts. Intellectual labor is at least as important.
People in a factory can’t do their work effectively without at least some people in offices pushing paper. People who come up with more efficient ways of organizing work are not only doing work themselves but facilitating the effectiveness of the work of others.
Those who develop theories about the way the universe is put together, or who write plays, novels, newspapers and blogs, play music or tell jokes are all engaged in different kinds of labor. At the end of the day, that is what a single company or all of free enterprise is about — human productivity and contribution.
This Labor Day, then, if you can spare a moment from the frenetic activities so many Americans define as “leisure,” please appreciate the fact that all of us labor at something and the sum of all this labor in a free society usually translates into better lives for almost all of us.