Lengthening Shadows

Here in the U.S., we’re rolling into Labor Day weekend. In a lot of communities, Labor Day marks the end of the summer break for children and teachers. Many call this weekend “the end of summer,” and it will be the last big weekend for travel, hanging out at the beach, and cookouts.

While summer won’t officially end until the autumnal equinox, the Middle Atlantic states are already seeing the sun set earlier. At work, my coworkers are grumbling about driving home in the dark. I’ve written before about my love of autumn, and I can feel its energies starting to stir.

But before we rush into the fall and winter holidays, I want to pause for a moment and think about Labor Day.

I overheard a conversation yesterday that made me stop and think. One woman asked another, “Why do we even have a Labor Day? What’s it for?”

I don’t think many people stop and consider the reasons behind federal holidays anymore. I often see posts on social media where people conflate Veterans Day with Memorial Day. I also see more than a few people get huffy about the difference. (I try to keep them distinct, but I also try not to be an ass about it. I don’t always succeed on either goal.)

While a lot of countries celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1st, the U.S. honors the labor movement and its contributions to our country’s development the first Monday in September. (We deliberately avoided May Day because of its connections to the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago.)

When people think of Labor Day, they probably envision someone like the person in the photo that accompanies this post. Or, perhaps the famous photo titled “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” comes to mind.

That is, we think of steelworkers and factory employees. We focus on people working manual labor jobs in difficult circumstances.

But Labor Day shouldn’t just be about those in trades or those with union connections. And it shouldn’t be just a recognition of the workers from past generations who helped build our nation.

The nature of work is changing rapidly in the U.S. Those factory jobs have moved overseas. Large numbers of workers are now employed in the service industries. And employers are quick to treat their employees as replaceable cogs.

This Labor Day, I hope folks will pause and consider all the different types of work that built our society. Yes, we owe a lot to the factory workers and tradesmen of the past. But we also owe our thanks to the office workers, the food-service industry, and all those who work in the domestic sphere without compensation.

Sadly, American schools do a poor job of teaching about the history of the labor movement in this country. When I was in high school in the late 1980s, I only learned about unions like the Wobblies because I was a member of the Academic Decathlon team, and the labor movement was a topic we studied.

This Labor Day, I hope you’ll take a moment to think about all the different kinds of laborers you encounter each day. And if you hit the big sales, I hope you’ll offer a kind word of thanks to the cashiers. Believe me, they’d rather have Labor Day off too.

(Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash)

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