Labor Day

Labor Day

Un-labor Day, really

This is the US holiday to honor all who work. I am spending it in Twain Harte at the cabin of friends Bob and Carolyn, along with Jim, Angela, and Ray. We are celebrating in the usual fashion.

I arrived Thursday, just in time to join Bob, Carolyn, and another friend Brent for dinner at Kelly's restaurant in Sugarpine, where we also made the acquaintance of a fine canine specimen. I easily picture him in an English club with a snifter of brandy and a cigar, saying, "Quite, quite." I think his name is Horace Rutherford.

Carolyn, Bob, Brent (left to right) Carolyn, Bob, Brent
Horace Rutherford Horace Rutherford. Is that throwing attitude, or what?

On Saturday, there was the customary golf game at the Twain Harte Country Club. I was in fine form and lost no golf balls in the two crossings of a stream that runs through the course, and I made it on the green in one on the 5th hole, where I enjoyed a celebratory bloody Mary. Of course, I would have enjoyed a celebratory bloody Mary in any case.

Ray drives Ray drives with determination
Carolyn putts Carolyn putts with nonchalance
Bob on the bench Bob becomes one with the course
Paul's bloody Mary Paul's bloody Mary, or what's left of it

On Saturday night Bob, ever the impressario, entertained his guests with the opening of the Twain Harte MovieMax outdoor theater.

Labor Day. When Labor Day was first observed in the US in the late 1800s, it grew out of the labor movement in an effort to show the contribution of workers to the community and provide a day of recreation and amusement for workers and their families. That much is still true: Labor Day is mostly a day of parades, picnics, and get togethers. The holiday remains largely uncommercialized, at least so far. There's not a big market for "Happy Labor Day" cards, nor for "Labor Day Bouquets" of flowers. What would be an appropriate flower for Labor Day anyway? There are roses for Valentines Day, lillies for Easter, poinsettias for Christmas, and what? Nettles for Labor Day? (See sidebar for more history.)

Thinking about the current state of American labor, I'm not sure there's all that much to celebrate.

roses Come to think of it, maybe roses would be the right flower for Labor Day, as in "Stop and smell the—"

• Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen more and more of their jobs moved overseas to cheaper labor markets, and the number of jobs available in the US continues to decline. In fact, unless things turn around significantly and very quickly, this Bush will have presided over the loss of more jobs in the US economy by the end of his term than during any administration since Herbert Hoover.

• Workers in the managerial and professional ranks have succumbed to an "I am my work" mentality and many of them work egregiously long hours — 10, 12, or more hours a day, and even on weekends. Employers love this behavior, since these employees are largely "exempt" from overtime pay, so the bosses get their cake and can eat it too.

• Many hourly workers, especially in service jobs, find themselves working for wages so low that they are forced to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2001 nearly 6% of American workers held down more than one job. (See chart for reasons why.)

• Work has become the defining element of most Americans' identity. Meet someone new, and the first question after "How do you do?" is likely to be, "And what do you do?" or "Where do you work?" The line between work and non-work has been blurred in the always-reachable world of cell-phones, portable computers, and email. Work-life balance is a fine slogan, but in many companies it is simply a joke.

• In an article written for Labor Day 2002, The Guardian pointed out that US workers work the longest hours in the industrialized world. Australian, Canadian, Japanese, and Mexican workers devote about 100 hours a year less to their jobs than American workers. Britons and Brazilians work 250 fewer hours per year, and Germans do 500 few hours per year. Among developing or transitional countries, only South Koreans and Czechs work more hours (500 hours and 100 hours, respectively) than Americans.

The contagion is spreading. The Trades Union Congress reported last year that one in six UK workers put in more than 48 hours per week.