Welcome to the least respected holiday on our calendar – Labor Day. A federal holiday since 1894, Labor Day is better known as the last holiday of summer, the serious start of school, and a great time to buy just about anything, rather than a day to recognize workers and to let them celebrate. Why shouldn’t we treat this day the way we want to, after all, we are all workers…right? Well, we might all work, but I’m not sure about all of us deserving a holiday to honor our work.
I am fortunate to have worked in a variety of industries during my life. Today, I am an “information worker” meaning that I facilitate the processing of data so that others can complete transactions and review and report the status of those transactions. I like the way that sounds, and I like my job, but it’s not like I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of bits up a steep incline – I’m sitting at a desk/laptop. On the way to this position, I worked on a farm, in a machine shop, on a river boat, at the Post Office, for a home improvement contractor and I owned and operated a cabinet shop. All of those jobs involved physical activity, the kind of work that takes a toll on your body and leaves you tired at the end of the day.
One of the things that I try to facilitate today is collaboration. As good as we get at routing documents from one person to another, sharing screens and voice and video, we never come close to the collaboration of the shop-floor. The machine shop that I worked in made gun barrels. Although I’m sure the process has been automated or enhanced by automation, back in my day (1970) it worked like this:
A piece of steel was cut or a forged blank was cleaned and prepared. Then a hole was drilled. Then the outside of the barrel was cut to its final shape. Then the inside was reamed to a fine finish and then “rifled”. After that, a variety of operations were performed to prepare the barrel to fit onto the firing mechanism of a gun.
Each of those steps involved one or more people completing operations on specific machines, and if one person messed up, the next guy was immediately affected. In addition, the shop was affected; orders were shipped late, or overtime had to be paid, or days off and holidays had to be spent working. You felt collaboration in that setting, and chronic failures were not tolerated – you weren’t late, you weren’t slow (you weren’t too fast, but that’s another story), and the quality of your work was measured.
Some of the ways in which those tasks have been automated represent a change for the better. Those jobs were dangerous. In the short time that I worked in that shop, I was injured several times and I witnessed many other injuries. As much as we paid attention to quality, human error was always part of the finished product. My work was checked by thickness gauges and micrometers but I was reading the output of those devices. Finally, when I worked a 12 hour shift, I was paid more for the final 4 hours, so the cost/price increased. Today’s machinery can run non-stop, performing operations with flawless precision without the need for time off. So, we produce higher quality gun barrels for less money and we can make more of them than we did in the 1970’s, and fewer people are injured and they are injured less often. We also employ less people.
I was working in that machine shop in order to pay for college. My coworkers were earning their living. The circumstances of their lives defined that job as their best opportunity at the time. They were good, hard-working men who were paid well for their time, but not enough to offset the conditions under which they labored. This was the worst place that I ever worked, and this was in the 1970’s, 65 years after the western Pennsylvania County in which this shop was located kept the “Death Calendar” pictured above. The men whose deaths were annotated by red crosses on that calendar, labored in far worse conditions than I did, in order to mine, make and move the material that made this country an amazing industrial force. The men I worked with in the machine shop enjoyed relative luxury due to the benefits earned by their predecessors – the people for whom this holiday was established.
As you enjoy this holiday, think of the people who went before you. Think of the people who built this country and the people who still work in difficult and / or dangerous jobs so that we can consume the products we now take for granted. We still have an abundance of skilled people in this country; we need to find a way to put them back to work. When we do that, we can truly celebrate Labor Day.