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Honest labor deserves honor and respect

September 01, 2011

As summer is coming to a close, another Labor Day is approaching. As I watched a crew of workers laying macadam on a blistering hot summer day, it was impossible not to admire their endurance and iron will to finish the job. All over the world, there are laborers using a variety of skills that make our lives more pleasant. Many of us will not or cannot do the dirty, nasty or dangerous jobs that they do every day. But we can let them know that they are important and that we appreciate their labor.

When the person who mows your yard comes to collect his pay and is dripping with sweat, give that person a generous tip and compliment them for a job well done. When the person hired to clear the snow and ice from your sidewalk takes a break, share a cup of hot cocoa and some praise. Those who labor do so throughout the year — many times under difficult circumstances. Giving workers recognition once a year is but a token of respect.

It is very saddening to see the relentless and empty-hearted pressure to cut the price of labor. True, price is an important economic consideration in the production of goods and services. However, at some point, the pressure to reduce the earnings of workers becomes pathological and evil. Labor has always been in an unenviable position. It is always in danger of being replaced by machines and is often regarded as an intruder into profits rather than as a contributor to production. Laborers are human beings with needs and aspirations as worthy of realization as that of managers.

Perhaps a fable will show the delicate linkage between employer and employee and the need for healthy attitudes on the part of both. The parable of the stomach might help. Once upon a time, the arms and legs became disgruntled and decided to stage a revolt against the stomach. They complained that they worked hard while the stomach was lazy — lying around and taking in food. The arms averred that they scraped and clawed to feed the stomach while the legs were annoyed at carrying the shiftless ingrate everywhere.

In retaliation, the arms and legs stopped the supply of food to the stomach and supposed they had taught the loafer a lesson. But soon, the arms began to sag and the knees began to buckle. Now it was time for the stomach to make a point. "You fools, do you not realize that it is only by feeding me that you get your strength? Without giving to me, you can go nowhere."

There can be little doubt that labor in America is being squeezed to the point of suffocation. Reasonable benefits — earned over a long expanse of time and after much effort — are being retracted in the name of efficiency. Collective bargaining — not recognized until 1935 — is now struggling for its very life. It is hard for fair-minded people to understand why the pain of hard times should be relieved by the suffering of only laborers and the middle class.

While labor gets periodic acceptance from some presidents and some members of Congress, it will never get the respect it deserves until citizens realize the importance of the labor movement. The recent election in Wisconsin to oust state senators objectionable to labor and replace them with more labor-friendly senators failed because the votes were not there. Close only counts in horseshoes.

Looking at the progress of the labor movement over the long haul, it appears that progress comes in small increments and in fits and starts. It takes a special effort by a charismatic, but caring, president to push Congress across the line to help the plight of labor. The "Square Deal" put forward by Theodore Roosevelt put a check on the growth of monopolies and advanced the interests of labor. In fact, Roosevelt openly expressed his wish for the wellbeing of workers. On one occasion, he said, "Materially we must strive to secure a broader opportunity for all men, so that each shall have a better chance to show the stuff of which he is made." At another time, he declared, "If I were an employee, a working man ... or a wage earner of any sort, I undoubtedly would join a union of my trade."

The "New Deal" initiated by his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the force behind the Magna Carta of labor, the Wagner Act, which made collective bargaining legal. The "Fair Deal" of Harry Truman also included support for the workers of America.

It is not appropriate to view "labor" as a social category only. While permissible for abstract sociological studies, it is a wholly unacceptable practice otherwise. Behind the term "labor" are the faces of people who get up each day and give of themselves to feed, clothe and educate their children. They deserve our interest and respect.

Try to make the yearly ritual of Labor Day a daily expression of appreciation for those who give us so many services to make our lives pleasant. They deserve our honor and respect.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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