Labor Day

September 2, 2012

“BEFORE I HAD BEEN down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away,” writes George Orwell in his classic account of British coal miners at work in the 1930s. What he found instead was that after exiting the primitive and sometimes dangerous elevator that had conveyed them deep into the earth, the miners had a long walk to get to the coal seam — if one can call it walking, through those low, narrow tunnels.

“[I]t is a tough job for anybody except a dwarf or a child,” Orwell writes. “You have not only got to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come. You have, therefore, a constant crick in the neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs.” After one to five miles of this ordeal, the miner reaches the seam and only then begins his workday — the part he gets paid for: 7½ hours of backbreaking labor, with perhaps a 15-minute break sneaked in to eat whatever bit of food he has brought with him.

The mines aren’t like that anymore, though they can still be deadly, as we are painfully reminded from time to time when we see the pictures of families waiting and fearful of what the rescue workers will find below. And there is a lot of other work still to be done that is both difficult and dangerous — nearly 4,700 fatal injuries in work accidents in the United States in 2010 — or perhaps just demeaning.

One powerful image from the author’s work (“The Road to Wigan Pier”) is of the miner at home, bathing or being bathed, engaged in the slow, laborious business of getting off the coal dust that covers every exposed inch of him and fills every crevice even in his eyelids. There, at least, within his family, he might find a bit of comfort and appreciation of what was in truth a heroic existence. It isn’t fair compensation, but it is all many working people ask — a decent regard for them and what they do. The people who have rebuilt our own city and its environs over the past 30 years, whether they come from Washington or West Virginia or Latin America, are all too often invisible or even derided. Those who make the beds, clean the buildings, cook the meals, care for the children and hand out the canapés at the cocktail parties are simply not seen for the most part.

A modern Orwell who put in some time on one of those jobs might have a contribution to make to the current, sometimes puerile, argument over who “built” this or that. As Orwell writes of his experience among the miners: “It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you . . .that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”

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