HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 4, 2006, Herald Journal

Labor day musing

By IVAN RACONTEUR

Despite its lofty origins, Labor Day, for most Americans, has nothing to do with labor issues.

The US Department of Labor claims that Labor Day is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

That sounds impressive, but one would be hard-pressed to find the average American worker standing around on Labor Day contemplating the contributions of labor to society.

It is, for most of us, more about the avoidance of labor.

Most people have the day off, making this the last long weekend of summer.

Unless one is stuck finishing some unavoidable project from the honey-do list, or staffing one of the “sales events” that seem to be popping up everywhere, Labor Day weekend represents the last big fling of the summer. Cookouts, parties, and maybe one last road trip are more representative of the day than labor issues are.

Even a telethon run by the fossilized remnant of a comedian is more closely identified with the day than labor issues are.

Perhaps American workers have become complacent.

The issues have certainly changed since Labor Day was implemented in the 1880s and 1890s.

Labor movements of the day, such as the Knights of Labor, fought for things that we take for granted today, such as shortening the workday to eight hours, and the elimination of child labor.

But, although working conditions for today’s workers in this country are certainly better and safer than for their counterparts of a century ago, there are still issues that should concern them.

Trifles, such as trade deficits that send American jobs overseas, and the elimination of decent jobs that pay a living wage, in favor of part-time jobs with no benefits, spring to mind.

The former problem is leaving some workers without any job, and the latter is forcing some people to work two or three part-time jobs just to get by.

The lack of public outcry about these issues may be complacency, or it may be that those affected are the least able to fight back. Whatever the reason, these issues do not seem to be unifying workers, and apart from the efforts of a few dedicated organizations, we don’t hear much about them.

The American work ethic has also been the subject of some debate.

Managers, especially those in service industries, complain that it is hard to get good help. Workers, particularly younger workers, frequently call in sick, or miss shifts, placing more of a burden on their co-workers.

One hates to admit it, but perhaps there is more to this than kids being lazy and irresponsible. Perhaps younger workers have seen the light, and just haven’t found appropriate ways to express what they have learned.

One recent study showed that Americans, on average, spend 70 more hours on the job each year than their Japanese counterparts, and 350 more hours per year than Europeans, which amounts to nearly 10 more weeks of work per year.

Even those workers who do earn vacation time don’t always use it. They may feel that they can’t afford to take the time off, or worry about consequences if they do take vacation time.

Other studies have shown that more than 30 percent of workers eat lunch at their desk because they do not feel they can spare the time to take a proper lunch.

This is where things get dangerous.

It is OK to be dedicated to one’s job. One can, and should, be able to get some satisfaction from a job well done. But, the minute we start identifying ourselves by the work we do; the minute our job becomes our identity, we are in trouble.

Work is something we do to bring in the goodies. We take a job to earn money to help us get the things that are really important in life.

When we begin to confuse the means with the end, we set ourselves up for all sorts of unhappiness.

Perhaps the younger workers have recognized this, and their apparent irresponsible behavior is their way of rebelling, and of avoiding the trap that so many have fallen into.

It seems unlikely, but it is possible.