Labor Day was created in the 1880s as a celebration of work and workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the idea came from either Peter J. Maguire or Matthew Maguire – one a leader in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the other a machinist. Either way, the holiday has its roots in industrial labor and unions, both of which were expanding at the time and have shrunk in recent decades. But changes in work aren’t just about the quantity of jobs. It’s about their quality.
Comments on the shift to a service economy often focus on economic and structural problems. Today’s working-class jobs generally pay less than the industrial, unionized labor of previous generations, and, as a recent series in the New York Times highlighted, uneven schedules and multiple part-time jobs wreak havoc on workers’ lives. But contemporary narratives of work remind us that there is more at stake: today’s jobs offer fewer sources of pride or solidarity.
We can trace the change in contemporary working-class literature. Some pieces emphasize the tedium of factory jobs, as in Tom Wayman’s “Factory Time,” or the way such jobs can leave a worker feeling like a cog in the machine, as Jim Daniels describes in “Digger’s Melted Ice”: “you push two buttons and the press/comes down. Always the same,/so simple you can disappear.” But many classic working-class texts suggest that even when the work is boring and hard, workers feel pride in what they produce and the skills involved. As Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work, working-class jobs are not just manual; they require expertise and judgment. As we learn in novels like Out of This Furnace or Christ in Concrete, knowing how to recognize when molten steel has the right mix of elements or how to construct a brick arch involves knowledge, not just strength. Industrial work can be alienating, but it also leaves workers with a strong sense of having contributed to a large and significant enterprise. In “Last Car,” from her collection Autopsy of an Engine, Lolita Hernandez describes how workers follow the last Cadillac as it moves down the line, crowding in near the end to sign the last engine, proud of their work even as they worry about what lies ahead after the plant closes.
But the satisfaction of work is also social, and workers’ social networks give them at least some power, as Hernandez shows in “Thanks to Abbie Wilson.” After Abbie’s section of the plant closes and she has been reassigned to a janitorial job, she returns to the empty floor where she once worked and re-enacts the process of attaching gaskets to oil pans. In describing Abbie’s performance, Hernandez makes clear that the work can’t be separated from workers’ relationships and the sense of agency those connections provide. Abbie’s former co-workers come to watch her:
And those who observed Abbie long enough were able to see themselves. They were amazed and happy because they all looked so young, energetic, and hopping in ways they hadn’t for years. Abbie waved at them because she knew they were happy to see themselves at their best when struggles with the bosses and each other were at their hottest, when Peanut Man hawked hot roasteds all through the shift, when Sweet Sadie sold her blouses and jewelry, when Red took liquor orders for lunch, when Thanksgiving was one long banquet of tamales and greens, and Dancing John, dressed up as Santa Claus, drove his jitney on the last day of work before Christmas break singing ho, ho, ho we’ll soon be out the doh. (110)
Remembering their younger selves, the workers recall the pleasure not only of being young and strong but also of standing up for themselves against the bosses, an experience of being “at their best” on the job.
Work looks different in a 2010 anthology from Bottom Dog Press, On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work. These stories explore the soul-killing nature of office work, conflicted relationships among workers, and the indignities of low-wage jobs that don’t let a worker sit down for even a moment on her eight-hour shift. Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” considers the limited opportunities for satisfaction in fast food work. While the narrator listens to the assistant manager’s running narrative of her troubled life, and while he eventually helps her through a personal crisis, their relationship remains tense, in part because the job carries different meanings for them. For the assistant manager, it’s a long-term reality, while the narrator is there just for the summer. On the other hand, they share a disdain for the job and for unpleasant customers: “we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.”
In other stories, workers do whatever they must to get by. In M. Kaat Toy’s story, tellingly titled “Any Failure to Obey Orders Will Be Considered an Act of Aggression,” a laid-off social worker now does the jobs “of people she might previously have helped,” busing tables at a restaurant and cleaning hotel rooms. She and her co-workers accept mistreatment from their bosses because, as one indicates, “I’m only in it for the money.” No one at the restaurant or hotel where she works seems to expect satisfaction from the job.
Nor do such jobs offer many opportunities for solidarity, as Dean Bakopoulos suggests in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. In the novel, a retail worker who’s taking a labor history class tries to organize a sit-down strike at the mall on Black Friday, modeled on the Flint strike of the 1930s. The story suggests some key differences between retail workers and their grandfathers, who, Bakopoulos tells us, worked at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge. The clerks work for many different large corporations, most of which are based somewhere else, so even though they share common problems at work – petty store managers, uneven schedules, low pay — they don’t have a common employer. They also don’t see these jobs as permanent, even though they have no other options or plans at the time. Shared conditions of labor and inspiring stories can’t overcome their fear of job loss, so only a few show up for the strike. For them, solidarity means getting together for a drink and a wet t-shirt contest at a bar next to the mall, not organizing or standing together to fight for better working conditions.
These days, Americans are more likely to celebrate Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer than as an opportunity to honor workers, and these stories suggest that the change in the holiday’s meaning reflects changes in work and working-class culture. As we head into September, it might be too late for a summer reading list, but it’s not too late to pay attention to the losses for workers captured in contemporary literature about work.