Labor Day signals summer’s end, just like Memorial Day initiates beach weekends and cookouts. At least we still honor fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. But the “labor” context of Labor Day seems to have been washed away by cold beer.
Membership in labor unions — owning political clout sought by candidates — has fallen for decades, and is now at its lowest level since the Great Depression. According to the Pew Research Center, only 11.3 percent of salaried workers belong to unions — with the South historically the least favorably disposed toward organized labor, even during its manufacturing heyday.
Here’s one reason, obviously: The labor that produces our clothing, cars, appliances and everything else lives offshore.
Another angle: Labor has lost its connotation. Labor is something to avoid at all costs, unless bragging about “sweat equity.” Labor-saving devices have turned us into a nation of button-pushers, with voice commands replacing even that finger job.
I remember reading an estimate of how many muscle groups were used and calories burned by lifting and lowering a garage door four times a day, multiplied by 365. Astounding. Garbage bins and suitcases have wheels. Smaller tasks — rotary phone dials, TV remotes — add up, as do miles not walked by using the “drive-thru.”
Exercise is, after all, a form of labor. I don’t see many construction workers at the gym. Unfortunately, physical labor and the blue-collar wearers who performed it were assigned a lower social status — except, perhaps, during wartime, when they were valued and celebrated.
Yet, college degree or not, who is more skilled in Earth sciences and animal husbandry than an experienced farmer? Highway builders learn math and physics pretty darn fast.
My grandfather was a laborer, a bricklayer who over 40 years worked himself up from journeyman to master. Proficient with numbers, he served as union treasurer. I picture him entering columns of figures in the ledger, and I also remember the pride when he drove me around Greensboro, pointing out “his” buildings.
I recall his metal lunch pail with its Thermos full of cold buttermilk tucked in the rounded lid; his mortar-caked boots, his faded overalls; his sun-scorched neck and rancid odor. The labor was brutal, but it gave him purpose, satisfaction and a living wage.
His trowel rests on the bookshelf in my living room. Granddaddy spent odd hours growing the family’s vegetables, chopping wood for the stove and fixing whatever needed fixing around the house. No Angie’s List. No brushless car wash for his ’36 Dodge. No ride-on mower, electric drill, power saw.
Labor was a way of life. I wonder what he would say to a robot floor sweeper.
This image in mind, when my son was 14 I offered him $50 to scrape and repaint the picket fence around our yard — erected for the dog nobody had time to walk. Fifty dollars was a lot of money in the late 1970s. But he had to finish the job, to my satisfaction, in 10 days, or not a penny. No excuses (except rain). No pro-rating.
Once the novelty wore off, he fussed and complained. This was labor, in the hot sun, while his friends were at the pool. I stood my ground. He complied. Then he bragged, rightfully so.
Labor has been romanticized, mechanized, politicized, outsourced. But when I stop to watch the hardhats hoist beams for a project on Morganton Road, when I slow down for road crews, when I recall the farmers I have interviewed, the miners descending a shaft, the truckers offloading a haul — I detect accomplishment different from office workers chained to their electronics.
Of course not everybody can perform physical labor. But for those with able bodies, on this Labor Day, instead of napping in the hammock or watching the game until time to fire up the gas grill, go cut somebody’s grass, preferably with a hand mower. Stack the fireplace wood. Rearrange the furniture. Stain the deck. Wax the car. Clean out the garage. Tackle the gutters. Wash the windows. Paint the fence.
Because believe me, that cold one will taste so much better when you’re done.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.