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A New Look at Labor Day

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted here and my sincerest apologies for being lax. I’ve been away on international travel the past 10 days or so with little to no internet access.

A little later today I will post the presentation I gave at a conference during my foreign foray, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on the paper.

As we celebrate Labor Day this weekend, I’d like us to consider what really constitutes labor.

As the Department of Labor website tells us, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In other words, it’s a day to celebrate the US labor movement and the unions that historically looked out for the little guy; that historically cared for the needs of workers’ families; that historically provided the leverage to guarantee better wages, working conditions, and hours for America’s muscle in the mines, factories, roadways, and construction sites around the country.

Labor was the working class, the producers. As opposed to management, the task-masters.

In the 21st century, however, the very concept of labor is radically different than it was in when Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894. Having moved significantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, labor in the United States today focuses more on providing a direct customer service than providing a product.

Wal-Mart employees and administrative assistants are the coal miners and shop workers of the 21st century.

But there are many others who labor in America but do not get the same recognition and equality. Labor’s new definition must include an entirely new segment of society if we are to be truly faithful to the concept.

Employees of non-governmental organizations and humanitarian aid agencies, while not usually counted among laborers, but their tireless efforts guarantee food, shelter, clothing (at the very least) to needy and suffering people both in the United States and abroad. Without their labor, victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the tsunami in Indonesia, and even the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would have been far worse off.

Also included in this category should be all who provide significant volunteer services, such as the individuals who dedicate years of their lives to the Peace Corps. These individuals work countless hours in depressed conditions to provide basic needs and services, as well as moral support, to needy populations around the globe.

Clergy of all denominations provide a service to the community and to society at large but are not usually counted among laborers. Despite the long hours, often-difficult conditions, and ridiculously low pay, members of the clergy do not have a union voice to press for more concessions from Divine Management. (Although I must admit, I would thoroughly enjoy being a fly on the wall of a collective bargaining session between a clergy union and The Almighty.)

Least often considered among laborers are the domestic help that feed us when we’re sick, change us when we’re dirty, succor us when we’re sick, wash our clothing, and provide overall care and service: stay-at-home parents. Moms and dads who dedicate their lives to the care and well-being of their children and families are some of America’s hardest working laborers, but are never considered in economic, statistical, or political discussions of labor. Without them, we’d all be in a far amount of serious trouble…

These are just a few of the categories of workers and laborers that must now be incorporated into our labor world-view. In the 21st century, labor is not what it used to be. Conditions have changed, so must our understanding of what a worker/laborer is.

More and more people provide work and service in new industries, communities, and facets that revolutionize our understanding of work. Economists across the globe are trying to come to terms with these new models of employment and labor.

As we celebrate the American worker today, let’s also celebrate these new types of labor and the folks who undertake them.

To all of you who provide services, manufacture products, aid the needy, rear children, or contribute in any way to the overall betterment of our society, our nation, our world, our economy, I wish you a very happy, healthy, and enjoyable Labor Day!

  1. September 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Happened across your blog this Labour Day and esp loved your comments about the clergy and other oppressed folk.Rite on the money as it were!
    Great piece!Can I post it on my page?

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