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It's Labor Day. Must We Talk About Work?
Commemorating the Holiday by Focusing on the Daily Grind

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

No backyard barbecues for Labor Secretary Elaine Chao today. No coolers of beer. No settin' at the picnic table, slatherin' butter all over one last batch of summertime corn on the cob.

"She is going to be in the office," says Melinda Thielen, the Cabinet secretary's press officer. "It's a typical Monday for her."

Thielen adds, firmly, about America's top dog for toilers: "She's the secretary of labor, and she's laboring."

After all, Chao may feel the need, in her scheduled CNN, Fox and other TV interviews, to highlight the 128,000 jobs added in July and to dispute some recent headlines. Labor Day is often Target Day for those think-tankers who study our deranged, exhausted work habits and utter bleak pronouncements. Instead of a celebration, like all the other major federal holidays, the first Monday in September is often a 24-hour repository of all that's wrong for workers:

· The Pew Research Center: "Americans believe that workers . . . are worse off now than a generation ago -- toiling longer and harder for less in wages and benefits, for employers who aren't as loyal . . . in jobs that aren't as secure."

· The Economic Policy Institute's "State of Working America 2006/2007": Productivity may have boomed in recent years, but family incomes have stalled.

· Peter D. Hart Research for the AFL-CIO repeats this pessimistic drumbeat: Fifty-five percent of Americans said their incomes were not keeping up with inflation; 38 percent predicted that the economy would worsen in the coming year.

Up in New York, at Cornell University, students will sit in class today, as they do every Labor Day, just it's like any other weekday. Really ? School ON Labor Day ? Yep, answers Dana Ford, a recent graduate, and "it's ironic" because Cornell happens to house one of the nation's few undergrad schools devoted to industrial and labor relations. "Of all places not to have the day off," she says.

Not that this stops her -- a current and very helpful employee of the AFL-CIO -- from passing a message on to AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff, even though he was supposed to be on vacation all last week.

Acuff is a man who fights The Man, a position that would, theoretically, make him especially well positioned to stave off the overdrive of the modern American workplace. Yet even he spent much of his vacation on the phone, working. By Friday, as he returned a phone call, he sounded exhausted.

"Stupid idea," he muttered into the voice mail in between leaving his cell and home phone numbers, "to take the week before Labor Day off."

And he won't even get a rest on Labor Day itself: He'll be traveling to Vermont, where he'll attend a couple of union rallies and campaign for politicians running for office.

Work, work, work, work, work work work. Work. Work work work. Work. And more. Work.

Uh-oh. Here's another press release. Fifty-two percent of Americans agreed strongly with this statement: "Too many Americans are focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community." (Another 41 percent, in this 2004 poll of 1,092 people by the Center for a New American Dream, agreed "somewhat.")

"We tend to say that Labor Day should be renamed Overworked Laborer Day," says Monique Tilford, the center's acting executive director. Her Takoma Park organization is all about "happier and healthier." She would return a reporter's Thursday phone call immediately: "We're closed Fridays."

Closed Fridays? Because of the Labor Day weekend?

Closed every Friday, repeats Communications Associate Nicole Berckes. "We advocate the four-day workweek."

Stunning.

"Whenever I tell people about it," Berckes continues, "they're like, 'Omigod, can you get me a job there?' "

Talk about a New American Dream: The center may have been one of the few workplaces this summer where no one logged on to Working America's My Bad Boss contest Web site .

For six weeks, 5,000 people sent in horror stories about their workplaces. A quarter-million logged on to read. Fifty thousand voted for six "winners." The contest organizers found themselves so overwhelmed, they had to hire five temp workers "just to read through all the entries and get them ready to put up on the Web," says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. "We had no idea."

There was the leasing agent who wore a blazer with three buttons on the sleeves and claims to have been told, by the VP of real estate wearing a blazer sleeves with two buttons per sleeve, to "cut two buttons off of each sleeve so I didn't look like I outranked him."

And the social worker from Michigan, who described a client of hers -- a veteran traumatized by broadcasts of the war in Iraq. He arrived at the emergency room of a psychiatric hospital but couldn't get admitted: His stay would cost the hospital too much, she wrote. He wound up shooting himself in the head. Her boss's reaction? "People commit suicide every day."

Her story was a contest finalist.

"We were flooded with entries," Nussbaum says. "What surprised me was the intensity of the response. . . . We were amazed both by the volume and the underlying tone of what we heard, the kind of searing, painful quality" to a lot of the stories.

While Working America didn't verify any of the stories -- "we never said that these were stories we could vouch for" -- Nussbaum, at least, believes them: "I think the traffic to the Web site shows that the stories rang true."

As did the story, early last week, about the Little League slugger from Columbus, Ga., and his working father. Cody Walker hit the winning home run and catapulted his team to championship status, besting the juggernaut team from Japan. In an interview with ESPN, the boy teared up and talked about wishing his dad could have been there.

But his dad had to get back to work.

Which started a conversation about what a terrible, greedy boss the man must have. By midweek, the story shifted, and it wasn't that the guy's boss was at fault, but more that the expenses of the Little League World Series, plus rain delays that meant staying a couple of extra days, had started to mount.

Whatever the motivation, the result was the same:

Work ruled.

As it always does.

Happy Labor Day.

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