A LABOR DAY’S WORK

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.

THE FUTURE OF WORK, OR HOW DO I GET A JOB WITHOUT A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?

By Paul

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 I’ve been thinking recently about a fascinating show I saw last week on PBS about the Amish.  There are many things about them to admire, including their insistence on living a simple life and their finding spiritual strength in the land, and then there are some things about them that both puzzle and disturb me.  One of the most puzzling things has to do with their take on education, which is that children are only allowed to go to school up to the 8th grade. 

At a real stretch, I guess that could possibly make some measure of sense, however dubious, if little Josiah or Esther are going to inherit the family farm and live like their great grandparents did.  But is that really feasible anymore?  Not only do the Amish tend to have lots of kids, and therefore dad’s farm is getting subdivided into lots of smaller and smaller parcels, but many already have no farm at all.  Instead, they work in local factories owned by “English” (i.e. non-Amish) people. 

This in turn got me thinking about lots of other kids, not just the Amish, who may be looking for factory jobs in the future.  When I was a teenager, back in the 50’s, there were plenty of these kinds of jobs around, and I could easily have gotten one myself after high school, if I’d chosen that route, just as my brother did, in fact.  He went on to make a decent living working at the Ford Company factory near where we grew up in upstate New York.  They produced springs and radiators there.  But even he eventually had to move to Detroit for a while, once the factory he worked in got shut down.  And both my father and my mother, too, worked in factories before him making sandpaper, even if they got a lot less money for it than he did.

The scene that sticks in my mind from the show is the shots of the Amish men running around as fast as they could, pretty much literally, from place to place in the factory, all the while piecing together what looked like small vacation trailers.  What kept going through my mind was one simple question:  how much longer would the owner of that factory even need these guys?  It’s hard for me to imagine that sooner or later robotic devices aren’t going to be cheap enough for the owner of that factory to say to himself, why am I doing this?  Why am I paying Josiah’s wages, and his healthcare (if he even gets that), all the while worrying about whether or not he might get injured, or discouraged, or come to work drunk some day (not that any Amish would do that!).  But why not instead bite the bullet, splurge up front for the robots, and then never have to think twice again about paying wages or benefits, or having to deal with somebody’s messy emotional life?  And I can work these things 24/7, if I’ve got the orders.  One thing is definitely for sure: robots do not complain about overwork, and they don’t demand double or triple time either! 

I don’t think that day may be so far off for this particular vacation trailer maker, or for thousands of other large and small manufacturers throughout the country, and the world, for that matter.  So the real question that this comes back to once again has to do with education.  How are we going to provide Josiah and Esther, and Jack and Jane, and Manuel and Maria, and millions like them with the needed education to get them ready for what’s coming round the bend?  How do we even convince them that something is coming?  Leave aside for the moment the Amish and the question of their life-style choices, and just think about those kids in Los Angeles, let’s say, or Dayton, or Dubuque, who don’t finish, or just barely finish high school.  What kind of a job can they expect to get, and I’m not just talking about next month, but 20 or 30 years from now? 

Sure, there will always be a need for plumbers and carpenters and other skilled craftsmen, but that takes training, too.  And not everyone is interested in college; neither does everybody get to go there, even if they are interested.  But what we’ve got to think through right now is how to help those young people who are about to be displaced by technology.  What are they going to do?  They want and deserve a good life too, but they need the skills that are going to be required for the jobs of the 21st century.  So, yes, let’s definitely support Pres. Obama’s call for more training after high school, and at the same time by the way, why not urge companies to take on young interns who, with a solid enough educational background, can be trained on the job for the way work is going to be done in the future?  The Germans do it already, and we can maybe learn some pretty good lessons from them about how to run an economy. 

My father and my mother, and my brother too, were all part of the old style factory model, but even they knew that the way it had been for them couldn’t last forever.  And if that time hasn’t already come, it’s not far off.  I just hope that Josiah and his friends, as well as others who for whatever reason don’t go to college, will see the handwriting on the wall, and see what it’s going to take to get ahead from this point on.  Every human being deserves a good life, and yet that good life is not guaranteed.  It’s up to us to guide young people and to provide them with opportunities, and then it’s up to them to take advantage of those opportunities.  Without both sides of that equation, farm and factory alike are going to be outside of their reach.    

 

Introducing Kevin…

Kevin will post political cartoons and other art occasionally, along with his comments.

I’m Kevin

We “Two Old Liberals” welcome you to our blog about life, love, politics, the arts, ecology, personal habits, philosophy, humor, labor, ethics, religion, sex, our  planet and the universe, gossip, the economy, human rights, diet and exercise, and anything else that might cross our minds. Paul and I have known each other for nearly 40 years. We were roommates a lifetime ago when he was a grad student and I was an administrative assistant at the University of Michigan. We both lived in L.A. for a long time in the 70s and 80s, and we used to get together for breakfast once a week to sort out the affairs of the world and our own young lives. Since 1997 we’ve lived on opposite coasts and written long email letters to each other almost daily. Just recently we decided to open our communications, cartoons and complaints to the rest of the world.

I’m Kevin – a fat old bald old guy with the glasses, goatee, and comb-over. For 22 years I’ve made a pretty good living prostituting my talents to Fortune 500 corporations as a business consultant, creative ideation facilitator and artist. I still do that, with increasing cognitive dissonance, and it allows me to paint and create any kind of art I want to make in my free time, without requiring it to sell to support me. I photographed the masthead image and drew the “Nude Gingrich” cartoon for this 2OL blog launch. Right now Robert and I (Robert is an artist, too, and my lover of 15 years) have about 60 large paintings and installations in our art gallery downtown, as well as 30 more big paintings in the beautiful, opulent new library, and in a week we will install 18 of our canvases in a fancy restaurant in the center of the city for a two-month exhibit. In 19 months we will both have tandem one-man shows at my alma mater – a small college in the Midwest.

It sounds like Robert and I live in the city, doesn’t it? But, in fact, we live at the dead end of a remote dirt road, deep in the woods where satellite dishes are required to get TV and Internet service. It’s really quiet and beautiful out here. We used to own a big 5-bedroom, 3-bath show home in the suburbs. We poured all our creative energies into it. People came by the hundreds every year to tour our home and gardens. But we sensed that the real estate bubble was about to burst, followed by the entire economy, so we sold it for a great price just weeks before the crash. Selling that house felt like cutting off a leg. But we would have been foreclosure victims, and instead we got out of debt and bought a shabby old trailerhouse in the woods, with a collapsing ancient barn and a half-acre pond and stream on 7 acres. That was 5 years ago. Since then we’ve added four more acres with a hunting cabin that we are expanding into a nice little cottage where we intend to make our last stand together until we cannot stand any longer.

As well as being an incredible and prolific abstract expressionist painter, Robert is a phenomenal woodworker and a handsome 45-year-old postal worker. Before that, he was in the US Marine Corps for eight years. He adores animals and they love him back. We have lots of animals. But Robert isn’t a vegetarian. He’s a regular guy – a hard worker and builder. He can solve any Rubik’s Cube in two minutes flat and install entire plumbing and electrical systems in our new cottage. He knows how to fix and construct anything. And I have personally seen wild baby rabbits and frogs approach my beefy, bearded husband and climb into his hands and arms. Animals just know and trust him.

I used to be a vegetarian for 18 years. Now I eat some fish and fowl, but left to my own devices I like to eat piles of green vegetables and whole grains with a bit of cheese or spicy sauce. I’ve been interested in metaphysics and meditation for over 40 years, and in my old age, with our Cairn Terrier Scrappy by my side, I’m actually starting to practice a bit more meditation. Robert calls it “vegetation.” I used to enjoy drinking most evenings, but my old body won’t stand for that anymore, so I’m “vegetating” instead. I am a 63-year-old, totally gay, quasi-vegetarian, meditating, social-democratic liberal, environmentalist, hermit artist, who nevertheless makes a living with occasional forays to serve the corporate world of new product development and market research. How do they put up with me? I have no idea… 

“Bizarro World”

This morning, while Robert was waking up over the morning coffee I always make and serve in bed, I told him that increasingly I feel like we’re living in “Bizarro World.” Do you remember that alternative universe in the Superman comic books in which the whole world had gone cubist and backwards and weird? Well, that’s how our world is looking to me these days. Everything is so distorted and nothing makes sense anymore:

  • In Robert’s work world, the USPS promotes the most incompetent and laziest people into managerial positions where they do not have enough knowledge, expertise or work ethic to do a good job, and excellent workers are abused, enslaved and terribly mistreated. It’s the same everywhere these days… and the Republicans want to deny police, teachers, firefighters and other public servants collective bargaining rights. Indeed they want to kill all the unions and repress middle class workers.
  • Virtually all scientists and climate experts agree that our planet is racing toward the edge of the cliff called Global Climate Change and nobody will acknowledge or discuss the terminal implications of this manmade disaster. There are things we could do to save ourselves, but as a species we choose radical denial instead.
  • The Republican Party is engaged in a truly terrifying circus clown primary contest to select their creepy candidate for the US Presidency. Only in “Bizarro World” could distorted caricatures like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich be serious contenders for that profound honor. I have closely watched all US Presidential contests for over 50 years, and for the first time the list of leading characters who have topped the Republican polls in recent times simply takes my breath away: Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum! It’s a horror movie! What the hell has happened to the Republican Party? Where did all the reasonable conservatives go? Are they hiding? No. Reasonable conservatives are now called mainstream Democrats. President Obama is a right-of-center moderate conservative in my book.
  • In “Bizarro World” everything is upside-down. Billionaires and people like Mitt Romney who make millions every year pay only a 14% or 15% tax on their income, while the middle class is being squeezed and pushed out of existence and paying a 30% or 35% income tax. That’s the reverse of what it should be, isn’t it?! In Bizarro World the top 1% of the populace has more money and power than the other 99%. It’s really unbelievable, but true! They do!
  • We have a Congress that would be more productive if they adjourned and did NOTHING at all, rather than what they are doing now. The Founding Fathers weep.
  • The planet is dangerously overpopulated with 7 billion souls, but the Republican candidates for the US Presidency do not believe in birth control!… Birth control! What year is this?… 1812?!
  • Meanwhile, scores of citizens are being murdered by their own governments while the rest of the world does nothing, but just watches.
  • And, horror of horrors, governors and states are slashing and burning their public education budgets. Forget art and music programs, the Republican governors seem to want to make ALL education a privilege that only the wealthiest can afford. How do they expect the US to remain a superpower if we do not educate our populace? But they are afraid. America is turning brown, and the last thing they want is more educated brown people like President Obama aspiring to leadership and power.

There’s a reason why we live at the dead end of an isolated dirt road deep in the woods. Take a look at the masthead photo, above, of our half-acre pond. Although nature is beginning to show signs of breaking down, it still bears enough resemblance to its former glory that we do not feel like we are living in “Bizarro World” at home here in the woods. There is tremendous comfort in observing what is left of the seasons, the wild animals, and the weather in our 11 woodland acres and on our pond and in the stream that runs through it. We are so deeply fortunate to have a place to get away from “Bizarro World.” I wish everyone could experience the peace and purity of these woods. Nature may yet find a way to speak to us. What will She say?

— Kevin