A FEW YEARS ago a group of construction workers doing a major remake of a high school in Washington were eating lunch in the school parking lot when a teacher struck up a conversation with them. They were a little reluctant at first (their foremen had told them not to talk with the students, and they weren’t sure whether that applied to staff and faculty), but they were soon talking freely, not only about their work but, more indirectly, about the rancor some people in this country directed at them, not as people, but as a sort of national problem, vaguely defined, because they had come here from Latin America, some of them without papers. One of them gestured toward the massive structure of steel, glass and brick they had helped erect and said, “We did a good job here. People should give us credit for that.”
Many people do. There is a history of it. Peter J. McGuire, a labor union leader of the late 19th century, proposed, in fact, that a day be set aside each year to honor the working people “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Some credit Mr. McGuire with creating Labor Day, but whatever his role in it, his words, quaint as they may sound today, set the tone for it. For many, perhaps most of us, the holiday has evolved over the years from a celebration of worker solidarity to a seasonal marker of the end of cookout season and the start of school. Not entirely forgotten, though, is the idea of work as not just a necessity but as an accomplishment, a thing that, done well and diligently, is cause for pride.
Over the past half-century, the skylines of the nation’s capital city and its suburbs have been transformed by working people, many of whom came here from somewhere else — not only from other countries but from nearby counties or states or more distant regions. Skilled and unskilled, they have put up the buildings, maintained the machinery that keeps them functioning, served the needs of those who work and live in them.
If some don’t appreciate the intrinsic value of all this — of what can be called labor — it may be because of the increasingly fragmented nature of our society. Those who do the steady, everyday work — who perform the valuable service of showing up and doing things right — often live away from the more affluent quarters of our cities. They may commute from rural areas every week or take three buses to get from home to work across town each day, their problems and trials too often ignored or neglected. There is, perhaps more than ever, a large degree of economic separation in the country, compounded by wages that don’t keep up with costs and by zoning regulations and other restrictions on residence, on school districting, on economic activity.
Work is a universal value that ought to cut across many of these divides. The simplest and most enduring concept of Labor Day is that people should be recognized, honored and fairly compensated for what they do, that labor is not simply an “input” in some economic model but a considerable personal achievement, a value in itself and an object of appreciation.