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!