Happy Labor Day! The Work We Value (And Do Not)

Passengers can go down into the engine room be...
Imagine working here all day! Hot, slippery, dangerous. And you thought a cubicle was tough? Image via Wikipedia

If you’re fortunate enough to have a steady paid income — and millions of Americans this year do not — you are likely enjoying a holiday for Labor Day.

It’s an odd word, labor, as we now speak more frequently of work, off-shoring, out-sourcing, downsizing, right-sizing or, my new personal fave euphemism — excessing.


Labor used to mean working hard, often with your hands, in a field or shop floor or factory or on a boat or truck or assembly line, scrubbing the grease and dust from your pores at day’s end.

In 1996, I dated a man who had a job of unimaginable exoticism — he was a ship’s engineer and his job was to keep a DEP ship moving smoothly through New York harbor with its cargo of, yes, sewage. It was a shit ship.

But his workplace, which I visited once, was deeply humbling to a white-collar writer whose worst fear was…being edited. To get to work, he climbed a steep metal ladder up the side of his ship. To reach the engine room, the impossibly hot, slippery, greasy place he spent his shifts, he climbed down another metal ladder.

He was lean, ropy with muscle, his hands callused and hardened. He knew (how!?) to keep the engine running smoothly. I was in awe.

I never had to ask, “Honey, how was your day?” If he smelled of burnt diesel, not such a good one. Every night he showered for a very long time to scrub the day’s sweat, grime and dirt from his skin.

My snottty friends, I am ashamed to say, were dismayed that we so enjoyed one another’s company. He was funny, smart, kind, strong, easy-going. And cute!

I earned twice his salary. Neither of us cared about that much, nor that he wore overalls to work. He was well-read and great company.

I recently learned a new phrase, “emotional labor” which is deeply embedded in a culture so heavily reliant — airlines, healthcare, hospitality, retail, restaurant work — on personal service. A fascinating and frustrating lesson I took away from my 27 months working in retail as a sales associate is this: we only pay for (value, through wages, bonus, commissions) what we know to be true, verifiable and statistically evident.

The very core of “emotional labor”– the gentle way a nurse touches a patient or a hairdresser shampoos you or how a vet handles a scared animal — means it’s invisible. It’s how we care.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years, certainly moving from a newspaper job at a mid-career professional salary to $11/ hr. no commission folding T-shirts in a mall, (the subject of my new memoir), is the incessant, rampant and toxic snobbery that still infects much of how we, in the U.S., deride many forms of difficult, honorable, often deeply unpleasant work.

Of labor:

Meat-cutters and packers and those who kill the animals we eat.

Retail clerks who toil for poverty-level wages.

The home health aides who change our parents’ and grandparents’ diapers and wipe their noses and feed them for us, for hourly wages less than the price of a cocktail.

Miners whose dark, dirty, dangerous work brings the coal that powers the plants that provide the electric power that allows us to live in greater ease and comfort.

Hospice workers and chaplains, ministering to those who most need them.

Soldiers doing the worst job possible.

Have a relaxing day!

12 thoughts on “Happy Labor Day! The Work We Value (And Do Not)

  1. I enjoyed this immensely. I thought and thought about something that could be said for Labor Day today… and I mostly kept focusing on the fluffy, end-of-summer type stuff. But your post really gets to the heart of the matter. Thank you for this.

  2. Snoring Dog Studio

    We need all kinds of labor to strengthen our U.S. economy. This Labor Day is a difficult one to celebrate at all, with so many people out of work. I would hope that it’s arrival would remind our politicians that intransigence is hurting us all.

    1. I agree.

      There are so many interlocking/overlapping problems — from people with lousy skills (when there ARE jobs open) to age discrimination to fat cat corporations sitting on bags of cash and simply refusing to hire, but their CEOs carry home multiple millions because they have to protect “shareholders’ interests.”

      It’s an ugly mess and very few politicians have the guts to tackle the real issues. They get paid no matter what!

  3. A poignant post and an excellent reminder to those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs where ‘breaking a mental sweat’ is the most we can really be worried about. And great that you saw past social prejudices – they are immensely powerful, but so often invisible.

    1. Thanks…and glad to know you feel the same way. I was shocked to see how contemptuous many people were of me and my coworkers when I worked retail….it was a real eye-opener, These jobs are necessary and the people doing them are every bit as human as we are.

  4. It’s definitely hard working in retail or any service industry. I also think that being a waitress has gotta be tough, the time I’m my most crabby is when I’m hungry and I notice a lot of other people waiting to be served are even more crabby. I always make sure to say please, and thank you, and eat something beforehand so I’m less of a bear to deal with.

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