Next week Monday, some of us might pause to contemplate how unimportant a national holiday has become. Monday is Labor Day since it is the first Monday of this September. This holiday used to mean something to many people but times have changed. More and more as the years passed, Labor Day became a bit confusing. Was it truly a national holiday when every worker had a day off? Why were so many of us still packing a lunch and going to work that day? And what about the first day of school? Didn’t that traditionally come the day after Labor Day? Nowadays the first day of school might come weeks before Labor Day.
Well, don’t ask me, and I don’t want to mess with the computer – or fiddle with my cell phone – to check it out. Besides, so many of us seem to be in too much of a hurry to even pause and think about what happened to one of our major holidays.
Thoughts like this occurred to me this morning when out in the woods with the dogs. Those outings are usually reserved for other things – for getting away from human society – but this past year or more it has changed. When entering that old field I tell myself to pay attention to where I am, to what I am doing. Such precious outings are not to be used for thinking about anything but the field and woods, period. They are a little snatch of time for me to wear my Henry David Thoreau cap, to give myself over to Nature.
The original Labor Day came about in the late 19th century when factory workers (and a few others) began to agitate for a little respect. Among other things, it was the time of the Gilded Age, those days when the affluent ostentatiously reveled in their wealth. Then there was the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Those of us with a working-class background, or even just a modicum of knowledge about the history of labor in this country, know of such struggles. They were not easy, those early times of the labor movement. People were killed in some of those confrontations.
So what does Labor Day mean anymore? It used to tell of the end of summer and the start of fall, but nowadays with climate change, the starting and ending of our seasons, like the times for birds to migrate, are no longer clearly marked. And when we extend this to something like the seasons of the entire plant kingdom we might begin to get the idea. Things they are a-changin’.
Long ago there were a few summers that I worked as a laborer. These were in the times of my earliest college years when I tried to earn a little cash to supplement my G.I. Bill money. One such job was on a Milwaukee Road section crew – the fellows who rode those little putt-putting cars running up and down the railroad tracks.
That summer everything I lifted was heavy. The large steel pry bars, the wooden-handled steel picks, and even the Number 2 shovel, that classic hand tool of the railroad section worker, required a good amount of muscle strength. Those creosoted new railroad ties were no joke, and the times a crew of four or five of us had to actually lift a stretch of rail to set it in place called for special physical effort. On that summer job the most common tools seemed to weigh a ton. Yes, that was a time of labor, and I was fortunate to be up for it.
Hand labor – physical labor – is nothing to laugh at. Heavy lifting never is. Today whenever I see fellow humans on such jobs – like utility crew work and those poor roofers up there in the hot sun – I recognize an affinity with such good people. There used to be jokes about workers, how sometimes they spent more time leaning on their shovels than using them to move earth, gravel, or what they were made for. No, today I continue to see those laborers as the real thing. They earn their paychecks, often getting out there all year, and when needed, in all sorts of weather. I take my hats off to them.
Labor Day, as a true holiday was meant for such people. Over the years it may have been seen as a token – a small gesture of appreciation for those who work almost around the year, and who might at times be ignored when it comes to being given appreciation.
But the world of work keeps changing. Now, in our Cyber Age, we hear a lot about virtual this and virtual that. Today for some, work means sitting (or standing) at a keyboard while peering at a computer screen for hours on end. The only heavy lifting here might be to maneuver a full coffee cup.
Well, the world of work is still here, but it has seen its changes.
Howard Paap is a writer and former poet laureate of Bayfield, where he lives with his wife and dogs.