Some Thoughts for Labor Day

6 September 2010


Labor Day is one of the major holiday weekends on the US calendar. Memorial Day and Labor Day bookend the summer at its beginning and ending, and are widely celebrated here as families pile into their cars for the long weekend and often go to a lake, a river, the ocean, or a mountain to get away from the infrastructure of industrialized civilization. While Memorial Day remains a time when people are widely aware of the origin and meaning of the holiday, there is very little reflection on the meaning of Labor Day, except for some politicized speeches at picnics sponsored by unions.

The contemporary political left in the US makes much of the violence of US labor history, and its virtual elision from textbooks, if not also public consciousness. In this, they are right. Very few people who do not already have an ideological inclination to study labor history have any idea of the hard-fought and hard-won battles over labor and the rights of labor in US history. It is a fascinating story that I will not attempt to recount or even summarize here.

These hard-fought and hard-won battles, unlike many historical disputes that have dropped out of public consciousness, had real results. While it is by no means easy to be a laborer, the working class (which, as I have observed elsewhere, is almost everyone today) has protections that have been written into law. Social security, medicare, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, and a variety of protections, as well as legal mechanisms for workers to seek a redress of grievances against employers, have changed the way the companies do business, and have changed the lives of workers. We are so familiar with these programs that we scarcely think of them any more except as budgetary items, but they represent the legal institutionalization of the labor movement. Certainly worker benefits are much more generous in Europe, but Europe has a very different culture than the US, and the programs that function in Europe probably would not work very well on this side of the Atlantic.

It is deceptive to speak of “workers” because, as I noted above, almost everyone today is a worker. A year and a half ago in Responses to Recession, Left and Right I quoted otherwise notoriously muddle-headed metaphysical philosopher Alfred North Whitehead on this, who seemed to understand with preternatural clarity the condition of man in industrialized society:

“In any large city, almost everyone is an employee, employing his working hours in exact ways predetermined by others. Even his manners may be prescribed. So far as sheer individual freedom is concerned, there was more diffused freedom in the City of London in the year 1633, when Charles the First was King, than there is to-day in any industrial city of the world.”

Alfred North Whitehead, “The Study of the Past – its Uses and its Dangers,” Harvard Business Review (Volume XI, number 4, 1933)

To this I added the following:

Quite true. Even the heads of multinational corporations, CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and all the other chiefs and captains of industry are in fact employees of a corporation who are paid a salary for their efforts. While such individuals are celebrated both in the business press and in popular culture as larger than life, the figures such as the Hedge Fund Manager were, until recently, nearly legendary characters in the case of contemporary life, they are still employees, and they serve at the pleasure of shareholders and boards of directors. Moreover, they can be dismissed, and of late they actually have been dismissed.

Despite the near universal condition of being a worker today in the industrialized world, people by and large do not want to identify themselves as workers, much less as laborers. This image problem may ultimately be more relevant to the future of the labor movement than declining union membership and declining pay and benefits relative to economic growth.

While in no sense a scientific poll, some time ago I formulated a detailed survey that I posted on Craigslist in Portland, which included questions about how people self-identify in relation to their work, and even from my modest effort it was very obvious that people did not want to call themselves “laborers” or even members of the working class. Needless to say, equally small numbers were willing to identify themselves as proletarians, although I have noticed over the past couple of years the ironic use of “prole” (an abbreviation for “proletariat”) when people want to both acknowledge their role as workers and to criticize the ways in which their work lives are compromised by stultifying policies and procedures.

While people hesitate to self-identify as workers and laborers, they know that they must labor to live in an industrialized economy. And, more often than not, they know that they must accept compromises in terms of what work they can do that will support them. Matthew B. Crawford in his Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (which I discussed in Back to shop class!) returns to this theme several times:

“As against the confused hopes for the transformation of work along emancipatory lines, we are recalled to the basic antagonism of economic life: work is toilsome and necessarily serves someone else’s interests.”

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, p. 52

Crawford also emphasized the trades as a dependable way to make a living, and this is a brave thing to say today, since the relentless advice given to young people is to get a degree (really, a credential) and move as rapidly as possible into the professional classes. But the problem (earning a living), and the practical response to it (getting work that actually pays the bills), are neither of them new. I was interested to find this in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh:

“Professions are all very well for those who have connection and interest as well as capital, but otherwise they are white elephants. How many men do not you and I know who have talent, assiduity, excellent good sense, straightforwardness, every quality in fact which should command success, and who yet go on from year to year waiting and hoping against hope for the work which never comes?”

This is a theme that runs throughout the book, and we find it again near the end:

“Being a gentleman is a luxury which I cannot afford, therefore I do not want it. Let me go back to my shop again, and do things for people which they want done and will pay me for doing for them. They know what they want and what is good for them better than I can tell them.”

I couldn’t find the exact quote that I wanted from Butler’s hilarious and still all-too-true novel, but these two quotes give a flavor of his opinion on the matter.

Doing things for people which they want done and will pay others for doing for them is often a wake-up call as to what the world really values. Some of these economic valuations border on the absurd, and certainly don’t seem like an optimal use of labor. Recently on the BBC there was a very interesting story about the high unemployment rate in Latvia, Fears over Latvia brain drain as economy struggles. Damien McGuinness of BBC News in Riga interviewed one Martins Neimanis, a civil engineer who was hoping to get work, “picking strawberries or packing vegetables in England.”

Sometimes, despite the effort we put into improving ourselves, we are more valued for the physical labor that we are capable of doing than for anything else. Here’s a personal example: recently I bought firewood from a neighbor who has a small photography business. The photography business in Portland is not doing very well at present, but he can sell firewood. So I bought firewood from him, because this is what I needed. I haven’t ever patronized his photography business. And I am in the same boat myself, so to speak. I had to self-publish my books because no one wants them, and I publish everything on this forum for free and count myself lucky if anyone bothers to read it. No one is going to pay me for it. But I can get paid for manual labor, so I do what I can get paid to do, though I would much rather be paid to think and to write, and I am probably much better at thinking and writing than I am at manual labor, but, by and large, others are not willing to pay for it.

Matthew B. Crawford in his above-mentioned Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work made great sport of recent talk about the “creative class,” and deservedly so. This is a target than invites an arrow. Our above reflections make plain one of the weaknesses of trying to focus an economy on the creative class: mostly people are unwilling to pay for what the creative class produces, whereas they are willing to pay for shelter, food, and clothing. This can be a great disappointment to those of us who would like to be paid for our creative efforts, but it is a fact of life that cannot be wished away.

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