Labor Day is a day we honor American workers and recognize the great gains we’ve made from the days when children worked in factories. It’s generally devoid of the larger political meaning for most Americans. It’s the end of the summer season for us. May Day, the first day of May, is the celebration of labor for most of the world even though it has its origins here in the U.S.
And here in the U.S. the labor movement is barely breathing even though it’s needed more than ever. I’m not a member of a union though I’d gladly join one. I work in public relations now, having “gone over to the dark side” from journalism two years ago.
And the news business is suffering and still handing out layoffs left and right. I’ve seen journalists and writers training their Indian replacements before being laid off. There wasn’t a union around to do anything about that; a real labor union would have fought tooth and nail to stop that and at least made sure the executive who thought that up was given an attitude adjustment.
In the public relations agency business, you have a number of different bosses in the form of the clients the firm represents. Some of these clients are very bright and savvy businesspeople who are a pleasure to work with and some of them are ignorant succubae who think they should be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every week. I’m the oldest person in the small office and the one with the most journalism experience.
Just this past week, I got an email from a client at 7:50 p.m. Friday night and another one Saturday night at around 8:30 p.m. This is needless head game crap from a high-maintenance client and I’m not going to be part of it. Bosses and customers are like dogs not because they are loyal and lovable but because they have to be trained and housebroken. A client or manager will shit all over everything and eat your lunch if you let them. So I am going to patiently wait until our long weekend is over before I respond to these weekend emails. Unless a client’s CEO kills a hooker, I’m not going to work weekends.
There’s a sick strain in our culture where people claim to work absurdly long hours, trying to look like they’re some kind of mad workaholic genius. It’s really stupid, phony and transparent to think that sending emails at bizarre times means you’re a harder worker or better at your job. You don’t look dedicated when you do that, you look dumb.
I am convinced that my boss once emailed me from the toilet in the men’s room of our office. It’s a small office and I got an email from him and he wasn’t at his desk and there was no one in the conference room. Perhaps I should have been insulted but I thought it was funny. I wanted to respond to him that I was convinced he was on the toilet when he sent this email, but that might have been counterproductive. On one hand I admired his ability to multitask at all costs and his ability to be doubly productive while ensconced on the company throne. I cannot help but smile at the thought of our leader addressing an important client matter while squeezing out a growler.
But on the other hand, having to work at your job while sitting on the toilet is a sad state of affairs. If ever there is a time that a person should be alone with their own thoughts and have a moment of quiet personal contemplation, it should be their bathroom time. No one would consider it proper to send work emails from their smart phone while sitting in church, and the toilet has become the de facto confessional and meditation center of the American worker today. I don’t ever want to have a job where I feel it’s necessary to send work emails while sitting on the toilet.
At any rate, I like my boss well enough but don’t want his job. If I ever decide to quit in a big way, I’ll walk out and head home, maintaining a Zen-like calm over everything as the chaos and bad blood swirls around me. The media business is a rough business and those that work in and around it know that the times are changing faster than we can keep up with it. If you have a job in media or public relations, you are closer to unemployment than you’d like to think.
I’m lucky this Labor Day because despite the sorry state of American labor I have a wife who would forgive me if I quit tomorrow and dug ditches for a living. As long as I have hands that will work and feet that will carry me to the next work site, I will keep a roof over my family’s head and food in their stomachs.
Labor Day is a day when most American workers have a day off and spend it being thankful that we have a job, if we have one. Any power the day once held to fire up a meaningful organized labor movement in the U.S. has long been stripped away. For the vast majority of us, work is something we do because we have to do something that makes money.
I’d love to be able to say that I’m an independently wealthy writer who can generate income through the genius of every creative whim, but the truth is I work in an office doing work that doesn’t really interest me. I like being good at my job because I refuse to be a lazy slug and need to make a living. But I’m working for The Man like everyone else.
I find it to be a benefit to have worked many different jobs over the last two decades. I have been a grocery bagger, house painter, video store assistant manager, immigration inspector, security guard, line cook, telemarketer, retail sales clerk and financial journalist.
By far the job I hated the most was as the assistant manager of a video store. This was in suburban Atlanta in the late 1990s when I was living a miserable, impoverished life among the relative wealth and ease of the Atlanta suburbs. Even though I love watching films and getting to rent movies for free was a chief perk of the job, having to answer to the entitled whims of overfed suburbanites grated on my nerves unmercifully. There were a few very nice customers there, but I hated that job so much that when I saw a bug skitter across the floor one night, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. If a bug can find happiness in this miserable place, then good for him.
Having worked a large variety of jobs has given me a lot of different perspectives I otherwise would not have had. I like to think it shows in my daily interactions with people. I was that awkward teenager pushing his Dad’s lawnmower. I was the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonald’s on Labor Day. I was the unlucky immigration inspector stamping passports on Christmas and getting stuck working overtime.
Sometimes, even among very intelligent and good-natured friends, it becomes startlingly clear those who haven’t worked many of these jobs. The way someone treats a waitress or a bartender will tell you more about their life and attitude than any online profile or paper trail.
There’s a missing value that hasn’t been instilled in much of the population: that there is dignity in work, all work. Just because you don’t like your job or don’t like the people you work with or have to serve doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable behaving without dignity or purpose. All working people have dignity and deserve respect. Working for a living is beneath no one. And when you think about it, we are all a lot closer to the unemployment line than we like to think we are.
It’s a wisdom I’ve come to more recently and wish that I had had when I was bagging groceries and fielding the nonsensical complaints from entitled suburbanites. I felt the anger and resentment that comes with being treated like a servant. I let the opinion of others get to me, and it reflected a low opinion I had of myself. But dignity is not anything that anyone can grant you. If you’re in the right state of mind, you’ll have as much dignity shining shoes as you will being a movie star.
This Labor Day, resolve to take dignity in whatever job you do, and remember that no matter what the job is, everyone working for a living deserves your respect.
Happy Labor Day.
This past Easter Sunday, my family ate heartily and discussed some of the current political and economic issues of the day. There may be better ways to wash down a tasty Easter ham than a lamentation on the state of the republic, but we haven’t found it yet. Our conversation settled on how many pension holders have been screwed by their municipal or corporate overlords.
The unofficial conclusion we reached over our Easter meal was that the United States is long overdue for a resurrected organized labor movement.
Labor unions represent only about 11% of the American workforce, and a majority of union members today are government workers who can’t strike. The upside to this is that a lot of government workers have very good, stable jobs that are safer and more lucrative than their non-government worker counterparts. But most workers are continually getting screwed.
The labor movement was spurred on by the large impact of industrialization and it was designed to protect industrial laborers and tradesmen. It has not adapted to the changing economy. The majority of American workers today are not industrial tradesmen.
If there was a viable labor movement in the U.S., I would have a real union to join. I work as a financial journalist. The company I work for actually cut our salaries years ago during the financial crisis. They technically restored the salary cuts years later, but haven’t given raises since and continued to cut our pay in other ways, such as stopping all matching 401k contributions, gutting healthcare benefits, and the like. They’ve also done a lot of outsourcing. Employees with many years of service to the company under their belts were shown the door, their jobs shipped off to India.
A labor union would have fought all of those things, but there is no labor union representing us. We are considered too “professional” to join a union, though not professional enough to be tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage if someone outsourcing shyster can save the company a few dollars. But we don’t have much recourse since there is no collective bargaining going on. People vote with their feet and while people are leaving the company in droves, the rest of us are there are spending our energies looking for other work rather than fighting a good fight (and since I need my job and have four mouths to feed, I’ll kindly not mention the name of the company I work for here).
I dream of the day when the outsourcing C.E.O. gets a brick through his living room window and four flat tires on his way to work. There should be real unions to contend with when companies want to cut pay, cut benefits or cut jobs. This isn’t because I think the answer is some kind of socialist worker’s paradise. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy: Capitalism is the worst economic system there is except for all of the others.
There seems to be a great illness of myopathy among our current class of capitalists. They think only in the short term and only in terms of the bottom line. I have no problem with businesses making hard decisions and scoring a healthy profit, but a lot of executives are not thinking ahead much farther than the next quarterly report. Sure, the slash-and-burn fiscal ass-fucking they’ve been giving American workers has increased profits now, but what kind of company are they going to have in five years?
But our companies have pursued these policies and the results are predictable. American capitalism no longer means industriousness and hard work, but rather golden parachutes and amorality.
Just as democracy doesn’t work without real political opposition, real capitalism doesn’t work without American workers having some kind of say over their working lives. Labor unions were once the source of that power. They can be again.