Monday, September 7, 2009

You Worked So Hard, You Died Standing Up

Posted By on September 7, 2009, 7:26 PM

In the news business, holidays tend to be annoying. We have the same amount of work to do no matter what, so taking a day off means squeezing that work into four days instead of five. --- And since we send half our paper to the printer on Mondays, there's not much point in staying home. So we work, holidays be damned.

By the empty look of Main Street, however, it would seem not everyone shares our work ethic. They're out savoring that last little bit of juice from summer--grilling, camping and picnicking--oblivious that it took about a dozen years of strikes, boycotts and protests for unions to win their members that beloved end-of-summer day off. It came by way of Congress in 1894 as an olive branch to bone-weary Americans--men, women and children--who needed to work 12-hour days, seven-days-a-week, in often unsafe factories and mines, to make ends meet.

And yet, for all of Utah's early labor cred, with union folkheroes like Joe Hill dying here and the Wobblies' Big Bill Haywood being born here, Labor Day remains an understated affair. Yes, there was a big AFL-CIO picnic at Copper Park in Magna today--a barbecue and car show--but not much in the way of parades and union proselytizing.

So it must mean we're either mindlessly happy with our lot, or that we're working too hard to take stock. The profound fear of pink slips motivates many to put in extra hours to impress their bosses, while others just accept that a 50- or 60 hour/week job is the company "culture." It's how one gets ahead.

As one of the "overworkers" of the world, I tend to toil into the evening. In the process, I've become friends with our company's cleaning crew. One contractor, Carlos, would stop by my office each week, and we'd each master a new Spanish/English word. I'd always ask him, Que pasa?, to which, he'd reply, with great gusto: "Mucho trabajo!" (much work). He told me that since he arrived in America, he'd never taken a day off. Not even Christmas. For him, the American Dream was cleaning offices night and day.

Thus, it was not too surprising when one day, he didn't show up. A co-worker of his confided he didn't like his life in America, working so hard. He and his family returned to Mazatlan. I kind of envied him. It takes some courage to turn your back on America's promise (aka pipe dream) of prosperity, and now Carlos gets to live where Americans pay good money to vacation. Plus, now, he probably can count on a few holidays off to spend with his family.

Today, as Americans face a grimmer employment landscape than we have in a long while, I find myself humming Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle's "The Work Song." If you're an oldster, you may have heard Maria Muldaur sing this rousing number back in the '70s. Give it a listen or read the lyrics here.

And enjoy what's left of your day off.

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