It’s Labor Day, so I’m not laboring. Such a lame joke that gets repeated every year, and every year someone feels clever for saying it.
I suppose somewhere in this country, Labor Day is celebrated the way it once was–with parades and speeches and the strong presence of labor unions. Mostly, though, I think it’s a day spent dashing home from wherever people traveled to spend summer’s last long
Here in Door County, it means the tourists are finally gone. A few will linger, and some will return to see autumn colors (which they don’t seem to have anywhere else or why would they flock up here?), but mostly our streets and our towns will belong to us again. Bustling summer with all its visitors is fun for a while, but it’s also nice when things quiet down.
I wonder how many people will actually think about labor, about work, about the jobs we have and either love or hate, about those who are unemployed or underemployed, about those who work in unfair situations.
I suppose the first time I actually thought about those things was shortly after I got out of college and had begun my first newspaper job at the daily in my hometown. Most of the news staff were men. Women held sway on the society pages, of course, and there were three of us in the general newsroom out of a staff of about 15 reporters. Somewhere along the line someone told me we women were paid less than the men. We worked on the same stories, covered he same beats, took the same guff from editors and the public–and got paid less.
I’d like to say I started a revolt and changed all that, but I didn’t. I was young, I enjoyed what I did, and we had no union to complain to. I went along, and probably didn’t think much about it. No matter what I was earning, it was a heck of a lot more than I’d ever earned before, my bills got paid, and since I was the new kid on the block, I wasn’t about to make waves.
I think, though, that I really started thinking about the nature of work and our attitudes toward it a few years later, when I was raising my kids and no longer worked outside my home. I did a lot of sewing, making most of the family’s clothes, and my daughter was taking piano lessons. Those two things may seem unrelated, but read on.
One day, my daughter’s piano teacher approached me and asked if I would like my older son to take piano lessons, too. She suggested a barter system. She would teach him piano, and I would do alterations and mending for her and her family. I’m not crazy about alterations and mending, but it sounded like a workable system, so I agreed. I would keep track of my hours, I told her, to cover each hour of lessons.
That’s when she hit me with the final detail.
“I think my time is more valuable than yours because I have a music degree,” she said. “So it shouldn’t be an hour of sewing for an hour of lessons.”
I was flabbergasted. SHE had approached ME. There must have been a great deal of value to what I was doing. I had a skill she didn’t have, and she coveted the work I could do for her. I may not have had a degree in sewing, but I certainly had years of experience.
This was a very nice woman who meant well and was a few years older than I, and I wasn’t about to argue with her or tell her how insulting her remark was. Maybe I just wasn’t brave enough. On the surface, I went along–but I confess I did what was necessary to keep that bartering hour-for-hour, unbeknownst to her. To me, it wasn’t a matter of honesty, it was a matter of justice.
That one incident colored my attitude toward and my dislike of job comparisons. I would never say that some jobs shouldn’t pay more, because some do require a great deal more education, intelligence, sacrifice and material investment. But all work is valuable, and those who do the work should be treated with dignity and respect in the form of a paycheck that isn’t insulting, and attitudes that aren’t, either.
How long would a restaurant remain open if there was no one to keep it clean or to wait on tables? How many people would stay at a hotel that had dirty linen or filthy toilets? If those jobs are important to keep the business going, then the people who do them should be paid well, if not exorbitantly. They should never be considered “just a janitor” or “just a housekeeper.”
People brag about their kids who are doctors or lawyers or CEOs. My son works for a moving company, and I feel honored to brag about his hard work and diligence. He has to load other people’s things carefully, drive them on time to their destination, be on call for emergency runs. He’s reliable and respectful, and he saves other people from having to do all that grunt work on their own. I’m sure he doesn’t get paid nearly enough.
How many people brag that their son is a janitor and a darn good one? Or that their
daughter is in demand as a housekeeper in private homes? If not, why not?
You don’t have to be a Christian or even a religious person to believe that work-and-pay attitudes are skewed and need readjusting. But I love the Catholic Church’s social teachings on the subjects. Here are a few excerpts:
“In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.”–Pope Pius XI, On Reconstruction of the Social Order, 1931
“Work is, in the first place, ‘for the worker,’ not the worker ‘for work.’ Work itself can have greater or lesser objective value, but all work should be judged by the measure of dignity given to the person who carries it out.”–Pope St. John Paul II, On Human Work, 1981
“But above all, we must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool.” Pope St. John Paul II, On Human Work, 1981
“It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land.”–St. Pope John Paul II, The Hundredth Year, 1991
Those are only the recent quotes. The Church supported labor unions at their inception, and even back in the middle ages, was behind the organization of guilds and journeymen systems.
Labor Day as a holiday may have originally been about labor unions and the rights of workers–and that’s good. But I think it’s a good day to remind ourselves that all workers deserve respect and dignity, and so do the jobs they hold.