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Essay: Let’s celebrate working when we’re working

On the occasion of this 126th Labor Day as a national holiday, I’d like to make a modest proposal:

Let’s have a second one — Labor Day 2 — that’s not a day off.

I know that might sound like heresy.  A day off has been intertwined with the idea of Labor Day since the late 19th century when it was a holiday in some states but not yet nationally.

But the deeper aim of Labor Day is to honor workers — all those millions of women and men (and, at times in our national history, children) who have struggled throughout the past 243 years to keep body and soul together and help this nation accomplish, grow and prosper. 

To honor them with a day, the way we honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation’s armed forces veterans.

A day off is a fine way to bestow that honor, and, let me say, I’ve got nothing against a day off.  When I was working for a boss, I was just as glad as the next person to have paid time away from work. 

Saying, “Thank you,” on Labor Day 2

But here’s the thing:  Wouldn’t it be better to have Labor Day — at least, a Labor Day — on a weekday when everyone is at work?

Think about it:  We cheer for basketball players as they’re playing on the court.  We applaud for a symphony orchestra as they finish one piece and get ready to start another.  We attend parades to salute heroes, and we go to political rallies to cheer for candidates and policies we like.

Wouldn’t it be a great thing on a Labor Day 2 for everyone going everywhere to say, “Thank you,” to each worker? 

Leave the el, and, as you walk past the driver-operator, say, “Thank you.”  See a crossing guard helping kids across a busy street, and say, “Thank you.”  Send a “Thank you” email to the teacher of your child.  And to your state representative.  And to your pastor, your psychotherapist, your personal trainer, your plumber.

Say “Thank you” to the person clearing your restaurant table. And say “Thank you” to the cops on bikes, taking a break at the curb and wearing bullet-proof vests because, well, you know, they need them.

We like to work

In the American culture, there is a persistent assertion that work is drudgery.  It often is.  And, for so many Americans, especially women and immigrants, it’s underpaid. And it is.

What gets lost in this storyline, however, is that human beings like to work. Just ask someone who’s recently retired.  One of the hardest things about retirement is that you no longer have a job to go to — no longer have a group of colleagues and no longer have a task that plays some role in benefiting the greater good.

When we work, we feel we are doing our part.  We feel that we have a meaningful place in American society.  (That’s why it’s such an emotional drain to be unemployed.) 

So, a Labor Day 2 would be a time for each of us to say “Thank you” to those who work around us, and to say “Thank you” to those we work for and those we work with, in gratitude for the chance to work. 

Not a day off for some

A final point:  The one Labor Day we have is a national holiday and a day off.  But you know and I know that, for many, many people, it’s not a day off. 

On Labor Day, there will be people working at the Gap and at Burger King and at Jewel.  There will be men and women operating the el trains and driving the buses.  Cops will be on the job, and firefighters, and drug store clerks, and doctors, and, well, you know all the places that are open for business on Labor Day.

So, no need to wait for Labor Day 2.

On the holiday, everywhere you go, say, “Thank you.”  And, if you’re one of those people who have to work, enjoy the recognition. 

We are who we are because we have work to do.  That’s a cause for a day of celebration.  Or two.

Patrick T. Reardon

9.2.19

This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on 8.28.19.

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