Labor Day Reflections

Today we in the United States have a national holiday called Labor Day, which we are celebrating in theory by not laboring and thinking about those who do. Sadly, we now do this in a country that has during the course of my lifetime lost a great deal of the respect it once had for those who labor. 

When I was a kid I had great respect for those whose life’s work was based on labor. I did not grow up on a farm, but I grew up in a farming area. I grew up knowing dairy farmers, cash crop farmers, one horse farmer, and their kids. Throwing bales of hay up on trailer after trailer all day is labor. Good, honest, meaningful labor.

My paternal Grandfather, Truman “Stu” Stewart, spent his entire working career in good, honest, and skilled labor. When he retired, he collected retirement checks from three unions. Two were tiny – tinsmith’s and typesetters. The main retirement check was from the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters. Most of his career was spent in Saudi Arabia and Libya as a pipefitter and pipefitter foreman. Saudi Arabia to begin with, Libya after the Saudis nationalized the oilfields and threw Aramco out. My grandfather wasn’t perfect; none are.  But I was always fascinated about the things I learned from him about work and mechanics. And he was always proud of his safety record. Never was a worker in one of his crews killed on the job. Regardless of what we think today about carbon-based economies, my grandfather spent decades in the Mideast building what he thought would be a better future for all. After my grandfather was old enough that work in the Mideast was no longer practical, he worked for a few years in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. On his last job before retiring the Union put him in the tool room. Handing out tools, not doing real work as far as my grandfather was concerned. He bitched incessantly about being in the tool room.

Pipefitting is pretty skilled labor. Not all labor is skilled. When I was kid, I had a good friend who lived out in the middle of nowhere. His dad was a farmer. The extended family included an unskilled laborer – developmentally disabled I am sure. Yet the need for unskilled labor on a farm gave him something meaningful to do.

The stuff I have read for decades now about a “knowledge economy” and “knowledge workers” is all well and good. But a healthy country makes stuff too. The people at Apple, Inc. feel all good and self-satisfied about things “designed in the United States” and manufactured in China. Right now our economy is feeling the impact of our inability to perform the highly skilled work of producing microprocessor chips. Thousands of not-fully-completed vehicles are parked and not ready for sale. They are not fully built and ready for sale because the manufacturers don’t have the chips needed to make them go. Many other goods are simply not available because of “supply chain issues.” And heaven help us if we ever got into a shooting war with China. We’d be fighting naked in six months because the US no longer mass produces clothing. You can’t buy silverware mass produced in the US, either. All has been outsourced to China, where workers are not protected by labor unions. We’d rather have cheap shit from China than pay what it costs to have a reasonably compensated worker do work in the US and do it in a reasonable way in terms of impact on the environment. Maximization of profits through outsourcing manufacturing to China matters more, it seems, than having the US be able to defend itself or respecting the labor of American workers enough to pay for it.

Speaking of respect…. I live in a “right to work” state. What a wonderful twist of phrase. The politicians who pass “right to work” bills call them that because no one but management would like them if they were called what they really are – “right to fire people without cause” laws. Another sign of our disrespect is the federal minimum wage. The last time the minimum wage was raised was 24 July 2009. Since then, the buying power of that $7.25 an hour has decreased by 21%. 

Labor Unions ended child labor, made coal mining reasonably safe, and gave us the 40-hour work week. If we really want to honor labor, then we should all buy products MADE in the USA. Expect to pay more. And expect the combination of value of the product you purchase* and the respect you offer to your fellow US citizens to be worth it. 

*This assumes that US manufacturers will continue, as some have been, to engage in better engineering and better manufacturing processes, so that “Made in the USA” again means what it once did.