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Photo by Nick Free

What Is Labor Day Really About Anyway?

A Kick in the Career: In this week's installment, humorist and career expert Tom Stern muses about Labor Day. As the celebration of the American worker should we all (no exceptions) have the day off, or should we just go against the grain and go into work. Besides, who needs an end of summer barbecue.

Shouldn't we all be working on Labor Day? It is a day that, in the words of the U.S. Department of Labor's website is designed to honor the American worker; a person who is "the creator of much of the nation's strength, freedom and leadership." And, I might add, much of the nation's antacid use. I know I've felt like a strong leader when I couldn't get through a phone call with a difficult client without chugging eighteen Rolaids from an industrial-sized container I bought at Costco, followed by a quick Tums chaser fortified with extra calcium. (I've often wondered is there a connection between acid reflux and osteoporosis? And, if so, is this why businessmen are always saying "throw me a bone?")

Labor Day may have been set up to pay tribute to the worker, but it's become another excuse for an anemic barbecue where people talk about the long ago days of June and July with the same wistful tone that Shia LaBeouf recalls his days without a police record. Labor Day weekend has become less a clarion call to our unity as workers than a depressing reminder that summer is as good as dead. And let us remember that while we blithely take Monday off, plenty of other workers are making sure we can still buy groceries, pay our tolls, and get a brain freeze from a Blizzard at Dairy Queen. So if this is truly a holiday that is a celebration of the American worker, the least it could do is demonstrate what would happen if everyone stopped working for 24 lousy hours. We would all get a federally-mandated excuse to kick back and relax, even as all the people in the world, deprived of air travel, entertainment and dining out, would quickly become roving bands of nomadic hordes who resort to Satanic sacrifices and cannibalism. Not to mention the rampant looting of 7-Eleven's which for the first time in history won't be open.

So, Labor Day is pretty much the one holiday on which we have collectively decided to celebrate something by not doing it. Think of the havoc this could wreak on commerce if such a precedent were continued. What if every Valentine's Day, couples exchanged greeting cards featuring cherubic Cupids perched on brightly colored hearts that read "not thinking of you?" What if Thanksgiving was not about being grateful, but making a list of everything we hate and reading it aloud prior to the meal? Anyone up for chopping down a few perfectly good trees on Arbor Day?

Back in 1882, they wanted to have Labor Day in May, but the Socialist Party had already grabbed the first day of the month for their American worker parade. Some think that the first weekend in September was chosen to offset any identification with the Reds. Not only does this imply that U.S. labor organizations wanted to foist upon the public their own view of what fair treatment of workers meant, but it also provides a ready-made scenario for a low-budget independent film starring Susan Sarandon.

So now, most of us end up celebrating Labor Day by sucking down a Molson and moving the well-done burgers to the top rack of the outdoor grill while composing a eulogy for summer in our heads, "It was a good season. Hives. Poison Ivy. Sticking to the car seat. And that lifeguard who almost drowned. Ah, good times..." Sure, we're depressed that summer is over and we'll soon be back in the stultifying rhythms of a fall and winter at jobs that we have a love-hate relationship with. Well, it's time to reclaim Labor Day by getting to work, in a way that you never allow yourself to. Get up at 4 a.m. Go into the office. Let your creativity run wild. Why not rearrange all the furniture so that it looks like Alfred Hitchcock's profile, with your credenza forming his second chin? Challenge one another to write the most inspirational haiku about work you can think of, "Glad to be back here/I've let this job become stale/ My brain is crap weeeeeeeeeeee." Now you're loosened up, make those cold calls! "Hi, I'm Steve, and I'm lovin' life. Want to invest in a loaded mutual fund?" Your fresh new outlook could turn commonplace research into earth-shattering discoveries! ("I started out doing a regression analysis on our key demographic to understand why sixteen-year olds with head lice prefer non-fat yogurt sweetened with Splenda, and ended up locating a Denny's in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania that each morning serves half a dozen Grand Slam breakfasts and a barbiturate omelete to Elvis!" Damn, I'm good!")

Then, after an eight-hour day of discovering your true worth as a working person, throw the Labor Day blowout bash you deserve. Not some oh-well-it's-the-end-of-summer wiener roast, but a dancing on the tables, lampshade on the head, skeet-shooting Ritz crackers with a paper-clip-and-rubber band slingshot party. Hey, it's after hours in your office building, so there are no neighbors to disturb. You can even indulge your closet penchant for crappy boy band music from the mid-1990's. Oh, and if there are any people who have been laid off at your job recently, invite them in, too. I'm sure they'll overcome their resentment, and appreciate the opportunity to make a few extra bucks serving the food. Just don't let them near the steak knives.

Okay, so maybe I'm just going to have a boring old barbecue and lament the end of the more lax scheduling that the past three months have provided. Or maybe I'll just sneak into the office over the weekend with my wife, and inject some new energy into my workspace by fooling around with her on the desk: paperweights and calendars flung to the side, and the stapler clinging to the edge of my blotter for dear life. Okay, TMI. Suffice to say, it would be a Labor Day to remember, and it would forever take the curse of drudgery out of my workstation. All I'm getting at is that when it comes to a celebration of the American Worker, we can no longer leave it up to the powers that be. In the end, it seems, the onus is on us. Because no matter where you stand, Labor Day is a job in itself. After all, it's hard work juggling ten Jody Maroni chicken apple sausages and five frozen mail order Kobe beef medallions, while fending off that one guy who always brings his own veggie burger and doesn't seem to understand that there is no way you can ever tell when soy has been grilled to the point of being medium-rare.

Photo by Nick Free

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  • Patrick McFadden

    I see this day as a time to celebrate your work!  Is that the feeling you have about your work – that you celebrate having the opportunity to generate significant income, AND do work that is part of a worthy cause?

    We can find ways to express our hopes and dreams in our daily work.  I believe that our work can be our best gift to ourselves, our friends and family, our communities—and the best expression of our purpose here on earth.  Given the amount of time we spend working, failure to find meaningful, significant work is not just a minor misstep in living out God’s plan; it is a deeper kind of failure that can make each day feel like living death.Fulfilling work, work that integrates our talents and our passions, work done for a worthy purpose, has always been a sign of inner—and outer—maturity and wisdom.

  • Rajkumar chaudhary

    people don't want to waste their time for knowing about this day, every day is becoming a barbeque day, Adults just want their enjoyment. they(parents) themselves don't know, then what they will teach to their children ? even on 4th of July these Adults do the same thing Barbeque & Alcoholic drink, that's it. I am not surprised by not seeing much comments on this information.

  • Scott Seward

    Great article!! I'll be here at work on Monday, enjoying my time at my desk, not being able to do any work since I'm a buyer and none of my vendors will be open. Maybe I'll celebrate by going into the warehouse and recounting the 400 different items I buy to ensure the inventory system is still inaccurate. I say "still inaccurate" because no matter how many times I count the product, my staff can never get the computer right. Better yet, maybe I'll reshape my paper clips after all the abuse they've taken from using them to attach hundreds of PO's together. This, all the while the part time guy gets the day off, the slacker buyer I sit across from leaves early to do God knows what, and my manager tells me, "Guess what? If we're lucky, you'll be getting out of here early today." Of course, I can find work, there is always work to, but you get my point. Happy Labor Day.