By Paul

Most of us would probably reply in the negative if asked whether there is a difference between the words “work” and “labor.”  If pressed, we might remember that one word or the other gets used in specific circumstances.  A woman “in labor” is very different from a woman “at work,” for example, and a “workhouse,” at least as that term was used in the 19th century, was a place where the poor and petty criminals were lodged. Who does not recall Scrouge’s famous line from “A Christmas Carol”: “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?” 

To a certain extent, the two words have come down to us in modern English in accordance with the normal distinctions often seen between words of Latin and Anglo-Saxon origin.  Work is, of course, from the Germanic, or the Anglo-Saxon, weorc or worc.  At one time, in Old English, it referred to the act of fornication.  Later on, in Middle English, it widened its reference to mean any sort of deed or action done.  Labor, on the other hand, finds its original root in the Latin word labare, which meant to totter or to be unsteady on one’s feet, as may happen, for example, while tilling the soil.  In fact, even today the French word labourer maintains that part of the original denotation, and means to plow the fields.  

Looking at the word labor from another point of view, back in 6th century Italy St. Benedict took the original Latin meaning to heart when he founded his famous monastery at Montecassino, just south of Rome.  In so doing, he created the Benedictine order and gave them their famous motto, that of Ora et Labora, prayer and work, (or as it is stated in the Rule, Laborare est orare, “to work is to pray”).  And his monks, indeed, tilled the fields, just as some of their contemporary monastic descendants still do to this very day, the Trappists in particular.  

Still, most of us in a contemporary setting tend to think of the two words as being relatively interchangeable in meaning, if not in usage.  To work is the more common everyday term, whereas labor may sometimes carry something of a more high fluting feel.  People work in the factory, or in the office, or in the beauty parlor, or the grocery store, or on the farm, or in the classroom for that matter; they do not normally labor in any of these places.  And we call the holiday at the beginning of September that celebrates work “Labor Day,” not “Work Day,” for two reasons.  One is because we are speaking in a more formal register.  We are naming and identifying a special day set aside to celebrate the concept, the very idea of what it means to work.  The second is that the word labor can still carry its original connotation of hard physical work, of toiling in the factory or the fields.   We see this, too, in the use of the term “management and labor,” (i.e. those who oversee or direct, and those who actually do the work).    

In fact, if we recall for a moment the history of Labor Day, it is clear that it was originally set aside to celebrate “working men and women.”  Even today that very term, “working men and women,” has something about it that suggests the notion of laboring with one’s hands.  The first Labor Day took place actually on the first Tuesday of September in the year 1882.  It was only a few years later that the holiday became fixed on the first Monday of the month.  There is confusion, and some degree of disagreement as well, regarding who actually first came up with the idea for the celebration, but in the end many believe that a machinist by the name of Mathew McGuire proposed it to the Central Labor Union in New York City, as a day to celebrate “workingmen.”  The notion soon spread to other cities and states, but it didn’t become a national holiday until several years later, after the Pullman strike, when US marshals shot and killed a number of protesting workers.  The federal government, afraid of further wide-spread rioting, rushed to make Labor Day a nationally recognized holiday, in part to appease working men (and women), angry at how they were being treated by the barons of industry. 

I come from what is called a “working class” family myself.  Both my father and my mother worked in factories, as did my brother.  He was a proud member of the United Auto Workers’ Union, and labored (if you will) in a Ford Company plant, first in upstate New York, then in Michigan, for more than 30 years.  But I often wonder if he ever thought of what I wound up doing in my life in the field of education as “actual work.”  In that same vein, I will long remember an instance that took place many years ago now, when I happened to be eating lunch in a diner in the town where I grew up (a “working class” place if ever there was one).  I couldn’t help but overhear a loud conversation at a table nearby.  There, two “working men” were complaining, one to the other, about local teachers, and the fact that these teachers had the audacity to agitate for higher wages.  One particular phrase spoken that lunch hour still resounds in my ears to this day, when one of the disgusted men said to the other: “Why, goddamn, pretty soon them teachers are gonna be makin’ as much as workin’ people!” 

That implied question, asked probably some 45 years ago, still resonates today.  What do we, in fact, mean when we say “work,” and who are “working people?”  Are they only those who work with their hands?  Or can we expand the term to also mean those who work primarily with the mind, and less with the hands (surely no one works only with their hands).   Is it as simple as saying that some people get dirty while working, and some do not?  Indeed, it seems to me that to some extent at least Labor Day still holds on to that old-fashioned connotation of a day meant to honor those who do a “hard day’s labor,” and to celebrate those who work primarily with their hands.  When, for example, was the last time you saw a group of office workers, bankers, accountants, university professors, lawyers, doctors, or artists for that matter, marching in a Labor Day parade?  And if that is the case, does this mean that these people actually work, or not? 

The answer to the above question has to be a resounding “yes, of course they work!”  In fact, if we look back, it becomes obvious that, throughout this whole discussion, what we have mostly been talking about are notions of class.  And whoever thinks that the United States is not stratified through and through with multiple layers of class distinction had better think again.  The factory workers I overheard decades ago, my brother’s colleagues (even that term itself, “colleague,” I recognize as a kind of class-distinguishing word – my brother might simply have said: “those guys I work with”) believed in the class system.  In the 1960’s, factory workers could, and did, make more money than teachers, and they had better benefits, too, although that may no longer be the case today (that is, if either of the two can still find jobs).        

I think that most people, no matter what they do, no matter what job they perform, somehow feel as though they work hard.  To be frank, though, it has been my experience over the course of some 45 plus years of work that certain people do in fact work harder than others.  For many years, I oversaw an office of 15 to 16 people.  I noted that some worked very hard, and some did not.  Some carried the load for others, who for whatever reason did not shoulder the burden as readily.  Why one individual might have such a strong “work ethic,” while another appears to feel fine about surfing the web, coming in late and leaving early, or just generally not putting out much effort has always been something of a mystery to me.   

I think I will not arrive at answers to such questions today.  But these are some of the thoughts that occupy me, as we approach this Labor Day.  I may not march in parades, and during my time as a university administrator, I may not have gotten even particularly dirty. Still, I salute labor, I look upon work as a most honorable thing, and I applaud the celebration of a holiday that recognizes that work, at best, can and should be for each of us a great labor of love.

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