Saturday, September 5, 2015

Our Most Un-Sexy Holiday: Labor Day

Well, All They Did Was Go To Work

"Labor is discovered to be the grand conqueror enriching and building up nations more surely than the proudest battles."
--William Ellery Channing

If you wanted to attach unpleasantness to a holiday, you could hardly do better than "Labor Day."  It's the end of the summer. It's when you learn, as a school child, the fun is over. And we think now of "labor." That is: "work." That is, where the fun ends.

Work is not about fun or sex (for most people) or for thrills (for most people) or for happiness in the task (for most people); it's what you do because you have to do it.

Of course, there are those who find meaning in their work--doctors, nurses, some police, even some computer nerds and some are thrilled by it--professional athletes, actors, dancers.

But for most people, work is something they are not happy about, but resigned to. When I was in college I ran across the remark, "Most people work to live. The German lives to work." Eventually, I got so absorbed in my studies, I began to think I was drifting in that direction--didn't last.

There are those who disdain the worker--Paul LePage, governor of Maine, leaps to mind. In 2011, he removed an eleven panel mural from the Maine state department of labor because he said it glorified the working many without glorifying the few entrepreneurs who paid them. 

Patently Offensive: Where Are the Entrepreneurs?

 He also put up signs at the state line proclaiming: "Maine: Open for Business."  Here is a man who knows who the real heroes are: Not, certainly, the workers, but the rich guys like the Koch brothers.

Of course, the murals showed children who had "lost their childhood" because they were forced to work in mills. Child labor is now thought to have been a dark side to American history by most people--not in Mr. LePage's case apparently.
Open For Business

Keep This Girl Out of Trouble

And there are depictions of strikers being arrested.  If you ever want to open your mind to a different version of American history, just open up any book by Howard Zinn, and you will find a story of startling brutality and venality, with names you may have heard in other contexts--like Andrew Carnegie, Commodore Vanderbilt, Henry Ford--who behaved unconscionably in the pursuit of they almighty dollar, maiming the workers who built their businesses in the process.
Gov. LePage Knows Who Deserves What

This is a day I can only imagine Mr. LePage and his fellow travelers, the Koch Brothers and Scott Walker (that successful union buster), find objectionable.  Laboring people are a necessary evil to these sorts, a sort of burdensome speed limit on an open road which should be in private ownership anyway. Laboring men and women simply get in the way, they are just one step away from the slackers who exploit unemployment and welfare and would be best replaced by robots who never complain or demand anything. 

Not every hard driving entrepreneur regards the workers who they employ as burdensome.  In Washington, DC, I knew two men who ran a real estate development firm. They spent years acquiring property in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, trying to piece together a large city block they could develop, situated in an uninspiring town on the line with Washington, D.C.  While Bethesda and Chevy Chase had been gentrified into a sort of Rodeo Drive East, Silver Spring had remained a poor red headed step child, spurned, neglected, almost an embarrassment. Just as they completed their last acquisition, a mega-company, one everyone has heard of, a global juggernaut, arrived with an offer for the block they had assembled which was so gigantic they could not resist. Even if their grandest plans for the block were realized, they could not have made as much money. It meant they could cash in and retire in their mid 40's.

 One took the money, bought a huge estate in hunt country, Virginia retired and traveled. 

The other though, continued the firm, kept going into work every day.

"Why would you do that?" I asked him. "You continue to bear risk--you have a payroll, and all that goes with that--liability, workers' compensation, pensions to manage, HR rules and responsibilities. You're going to acquire new debt with each project. Why not just cash in like your partner and get clear? You got yours."

He looked at me, almost apologetic. I imagined he had had this discussion with his wife. "But I've got two dozen people who work for me. Their livelihoods depend on this company. And when we develop things, communities improve--the values of real estate rise; schools improve; life gets better for a lot of people; we build things and lives and futures. But mostly, it's the people who work for me. They have good jobs. I can't just walk away from them."

Can you imagine Paul LePage saying this?
Entrepreneurs Know Best

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