Labor Day Reflections
If you have read enough world literature, from Victorian-era novels to the Arabian Nights and everything in between, you may have noticed that the way to success is often to marry a prince, find hidden treasure or to obtain the favor of the powerful. America is different. Here, the road to success lies in work. On Labor Day, we celebrate a uniquely American holiday, one that honors working people. It’s a day that brings my parents to mind. My father, after he came home from the Korean War, waked in factories, usually as a janitor. My mother, before she married, was a secretary. She waited to marry and have children until she’d waked 10 years so that she was eligible for Social Security – a benefit based on work. Even when we three boys had come along, she used to practice her typing and shorthand regularly in the evenings, because, she told me, if anything happened to our father, she might have to go back to work.
My father, meanwhile, worked swing shifts at the ITW Eclipse Counterbore plant in Ferndale, and for a while had a second job, to earn extra money for his family. He was always tired and his hands, years after he’d retired, were still as hard and rough as rawhide. After the plant closed in 1980 and he was out of work at age 50, when Detroit-area unemployment was over 20%, he found ways to make money, first by working under the table, later by walking seven miles each way to a job paying a third of his former wage. Serving overseas in the Army at this time, it was only later that I learned that Dad walked those seven miles to save on bus fare. Neither he nor Mother ever complained; they were children of the Depression and didn’t want anybody’s sympathy or a handout; they were also schooled in the old way – they never felt sorry for themselves or blamed ‘society’ or others for their situation. They made do and worked things out themselves, as best they could.
That’s what I think about on Labor Day: Work, not connections, luck or get-rich-quick schemes, is the American Way, or at least that’s what we were raised to believe back when everyone else wanted to be like us. This weekend, as we enjoy these days of summer and take time off for the holiday, let’s remember what it celebrates – and then do our best to ensure American again is a place where anyone who wants to work hard can make it on their own, and where the son of a janitor in an ITW plant can own stock in his Dad’s old company. Happy Labor Day to all of you who work for a living, whatever the job; you’re moving society and your families forward the American way, by creating wealth, instead of just wishing for it.