Two years before Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1882, my grandfather was born. He was raised in Sicily and immigrated to Cuylerville, New York, outside Geneseo. He settled there, worked in the Retsof salt mines, became a US citizen, and barely supported his wife and six children.
When I think about Labor Day, my grandfather, and people like him, come to mind:
The Aides – those women and men who care for nursing home and assisted living residents, or who care for elderly persons at home. Their work is messy, critical, usually unseen and under-appreciated, as is the work of the aides who assist teachers for small pay in classrooms throughout the country;
The Servers – who staff restaurants, gas stations, and retail stores, and the receptionists, administrative assistants, and direct service providers who make just about any kind of not-for-profit organization or business a place of welcome and efficiency;
The Sweepers – who keep clean and tidy the streets, homes, sidewalks, floors, bathrooms, office buildings, cars, recreation centers, parks, schools, prisons, churches, mosques, and temples that make up our communities;
The Builders – who engineer and make things from autos to zippers, who construct roads buildings, and bridges. They fix tools and machines that are broken, develop new technologies and install carpets, windows, dry wall, furnaces and toilets;
The Diggers – who landscape and care for the earth, who plant the trees, water the flowers, and bury the dead.
The Stay-at-Home Moms and Dads – who cook, clean, transport, coordinate, discipline, organize, track, plan, grow food and flowers, communicate with schools, doctors and dentists and maintain spatial order.
Labor Day is Labor Appreciation Day for these and the many other workers who show up and get things done, especially those out of the limelight.
If you are one of them, I want to communicate the deep gratitude I carry for your contributions to my own life and the lives of those I love.
Along with celebrating work, Labor Day is also Labor Reflection Day.
The invitation of this holiday is to acknowledge how important work is, not only to our pocketbooks, but to our purpose and spirit: the nobility of a job well done, the dignity of supporting a family, the throngs of workers who accomplish what, too easily, the rest of us take for granted.
It’s not possible to celebrate the importance of work without recognizing that many lack a defined job, and with it, the dignity of work enjoyed by the employed.
I do not have a crystal ball that tells me how to make sure every human has an equal opportunity to find and keep a job. Many factors impact this complex issue, including lack of luck, lack of desire, lack of reliable transportation, childcare, or a good education. Add to that the lingering prejudices based on age, skin color, mental illness, physical disability, incarceration, nationality, and so on.
In my grandfather’s case, his work in the salt mines was eventually reduced. Desperate, he scavenged post-harvest crops at nearby farms, collected droppings from apple trees, hunted wild game, and raided forested beehives for honey.
The legacy of my grandfather has had a big impact on my life and work. It has formed my view of work as something to be treasured, not endured.
On this Labor Day, I invite you to think about the key contacts, strokes of luck, and personal persistence that have enabled you to be meaningfully employed.
And I invite you to join me in doing our part to dismantle the barriers that keep others from gainful jobs, whether those barriers are self-imposed or systemic.