Tonawanda News

August 30, 2013

ADAMCZYK: Labor Day in a convent

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — What is it again? Oh, Labor Day, when we momentarily remember those mustachioed, marching trade unionists in overalls who brought us collective bargaining and weekends and the concept of overtime pay, before we run out and frantically enjoy ourselves at a picnic or barbecue or something.

Labor Day, the federal holiday set up to mollify the Pullman Porters Union in the 1890s, Congress choosing a date as far away on the calendar from May Day (the “international workers’ holiday”) as they could. 

Like most readers, your correspondent here can classify himself in a number of identifiable categories, which, in his case, include union member and working retiree, and he’s thinking about this great holiday with a twinge of nostalgia. In a society in which the fastest-growing segment of business is, so I am informed, the one-person independent shop, Labor Day has something of a wistful, sepia-toned feel to it. 

It is easier to recount the ancillary facets of Labor Day. Last true weekend of summer. That back-to-school vibe. Football season, implying autumn and upcoming rotten weather. Even if we ponder the meaning of providing honor to those willing to admit they genuinely work for a living instead of taking and making phone calls, it’s a momentary homage. In the 21st century we’ve taken the sweat out of this holiday.

There will be lip service paid by political animals to those whose backs bend and muscles tense to advance this country (funny how politicians rarely file Workman’s Comp cases), from the political class whose grasp on the Labor in Labor Day is a little weak and who definitely don’t want their children involved in labor, let alone in whatever is left of the labor movement. (Well, maybe a little while they’re young, to so they understand the value of a private college education.) Mostly, though, it’s an antiquated notion, like giving the butler and maid a day off, in a world in which work involves a lot of button-pushing and consensus-building around a concept: a day to honor those who do the country’s labor.

We all think we’re laborers. We’re not, but even the white-collar union workers borrow heavily from the grunt workers’ playbook when it comes to organizing.

The previous decade’s trend, in industries that think they understand the future, is to pack offices with toys, to turn workspaces into play lands: do a little work, relax a little, do some more work. Only lately have the suffering coders and big-picture seers caught on; the idea is to make the work environment more inviting than the home environment. So people hang around more. And work more.

These flashy, high-tech offices are not crucibles of progress and breakthrough; they are convents for meditation about, and delivery of, the job at hand. Give me a noisy shop floor, any day.

Modern labor is on call 24/7 (that’s what those cellphones and Wi-Fi-equipped coffee shops are for). Modern labor is training when it’s not working, polishing resumes and competing with Singapore and Bangladesh and Poland. Modern labor is human beings with rapidly obsoleting skill sets in rapidly aging human bodies, doing things cheaper and faster with an eye on the bottom line and on on-time delivery. These people need a day off from the logistics of it all, but the big wheel does not stop turning for Labor Day. Wall Street, maybe, but not the big wheel.

So take the day off if you can, and note how many people labor on Labor Day. The area’s police, the doctors and nurses, those who provide you with television programs and sell you charcoal and hot dogs and furniture. Count the number of car dealers who are open on the day to honor workers.

Those Industrial Revolution guys staring out from old photographs of workers’ celebrations likely knew they made an advance of sorts when they left the farm to participate in the urban workforce. Whether they knew the advance would involve an eventual splintering into a hundred million independent contractors, desperately celebrating something called Labor Day, is another matter entirely.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.