Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day

It's Labor Day. A day to sit back and enjoy the fact that you have a day set aside from actually going to work so you can get more work done while you're at home.

Wait, that's not what labor day is about?

In fact, the whole concept of labor day is probably enough to confuse the heck out of all of us. Proposed by a union leader, copying those socialists in Canada, and fought against by president Grover Cleveland until they came to a negotiated understanding, it sounds a lot like it's a holiday celebrating organized labor.

We are, after all, a nation of workers...workers who complain about their working conditions no matter how posh they seem to an outsider. Even the highest paid executive can never get that coffee maker to work just right, or perhaps finding a competent secretary to bring him the coffee has been difficult. We all want better working conditions.

Yet unionized workers, and the unions that protect them, are often scapegoated for just about everything from the outsourcing of American jobs to the budget crises faced by many towns, states, and even the federal government. People seem to hate organized labor, even if they are in a union. We're a nation of labor schizophrenics.

American jobs are shipped overseas because unionized American labor is too expensive. They require benefits and OSHA-approved working conditions. If we would just work for peanuts, with no medical benefits, and work in factories where we could easily die the next time a machine coughs or clogs putting lead paint on toy cars America could become the great nation it once was. Damn unions.

The truth is, we are all labor in some ways. We all work for someone. So Labor Day is for all of us. And no matter how much you think "the other guy" has it easy, we all have a lot on our plates. Don't hate your boss because he makes twice as much as you. He has a boss that craps on him too, pressures a bit more pressing than yours (at least on the job), and probably is at more risk of being fired at the drop of a hat than you are.

And bosses, don't be so quick to judge your employees. If they seem lazy, unmotivated, and self-absorbed, it's because, well, you haven't given them as strong a stake in the work they are doing as you have. They don't get paid as much as you. They have families to feed, which probably weigh on their minds more than if your company makes a profit. It's the American system. Yes, I work for you, but only because it benefits me.

Then we come to us in the public sector. We are paid by society to do a service for society. And people hate us for it. It's one thing when there's a lazy employee hurting the profits of a grocery store, bank, or video store (I've worked at all three), but when that lazy person is costing you money, tax money, that is absolutely enraging. The truth is, though, that if the government wasn't paying that worker, they wouldn't be lowering your taxes by that worker's salary divided by the number of tax-payers. They'd be wasting it somewhere else.

And don't blame teachers for their union's attempt to protect them. Most teachers, if not all, in some ways work above and beyond the contracts that have been negotiated for them. Yes, the union fought for us to have a school day that ends and begins 20 minutes after and before the bells ring, but none of us stop teaching at that point. In fact, many of us will be grading papers on this Labor Day. We stay late for kids, give up our union-negotiated lunches for kids, and even sometimes vote to forgo our union-negotiated annual raises to help out the kids. Name me one group in the private sector who would vote to forgo raises to help the bottom line at the company it works for. Yes you work hard too. Yes you take work home too. But if your union fought to protect you from doing something, would you do it anyway out of the goodness of your heart?

I also understand the local towns needing to get the most they can for their buck. The battle between labor and management need not be a battle. It's sad how we use terms like "labor" and "management" to divide and dehumanize. It's that damn economics 101 pie theory. If you get more, I have to take less. Imagine a negotiation where both sides went into it trying to do the best they could for each other. Just imagine it for fun. What a beautiful thing it would be. We're all humans, and shouldn't we want to do the best we can for our fellow humans?

It seems like a fairy tale, something out of the Bible or a board book. However, I recently did experience such a thing. I was trying to buy a car from an older gentleman who had priced the car at $3,500. I was sold the moment I saw the car--I was desperate after all--but he insisted I drive it first. He handed me the keys and let me drive off alone in his property without thinking twice. A bit risky, no? I could have crashed, stolen the car, whatever I wanted to really. Then, when I told him I would take it, he asked me if I want to talk price. I said I just needed a few days to get the money all in one place.

He said, "Well, I could go down, ya know, maybe, say, even $3,300."

I never said a thing. I never asked him to lower the price or indicated that I couldn't pay it. He was simply being an honest negotiator. He had set the price higher than he wanted in order to leave room to negotiate. He had asked for $200 more than he needed, so when the buyer tried to get it down, it would work out for him. A crafty and selfish move. But when the buyer didn't try to get it down, either his conscience or sense of social justice brought that price down anyway. It was the Golden Rule at its finest, social contract theory in action. Not a bad sign that humanity hasn't gone to hell in a hand basket, after all.

It reminds me that even though our society, the one that gave us Labor Day, isn't about the American ideals of individualism and selfishness. It's about humanity, compassion, and giving. Yes, we all have a boss, but it's the same boss. The Big Guy above. We all answer to Him in the end.

So bosses and employees, labor and management, whichever "side" you are on, remember, in the end, we're all on the same side here. We're all here for a purpose, and it isn't simply to get ahead. Take care of each other, through not just negotiations, but through all of your every day interactions. And remember, though those of us fortunate enough to have Labor Day off can take a moment to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor--our collective labor--our true work is never done. For love, compassion, understanding, and self-sacrifice should never take a holiday.

Be at peace friends. Happy Labor Day.

"Who Can it Be Now" Men at Work
(Get it? Men at work? See what I did there?)

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