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Real work

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It is a familiar paradox that Labor Day is devoted to fun and idleness, even though it is the one day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. In particular we should be honoring the history of the Trade Union Movement that protected workers and gave them a political voice.

Work is not popular any more, at least not what my father would have called “real work,” where you get your hands dirty, use your muscles and maybe even sweat. Most people wisely prefer an office job, where the most challenging physical task of the day is switching on the computer. There is plenty of strenuous physical work to be done in the world, but almost no connection between the value of that work and the rewards for doing it. We need plumbers much more often and more urgently than we need pop musicians or politicians, but guess who stands higher on the pay scale.

The whole world of work and leisure has been turned upside down since COVID came on the scene. Millions of wage earners have discovered the benefits of working away from work, as it were. Some have found new and more congenial forms of employment. Some have simply dropped out or slowed down in a process known as quiet quitting.

For many workers the change has been difficult and no kind of liberation. But for those with the luck and resources to renegotiate their lives, COVID was a great opportunity.

So the labor market is in a strange state of turmoil. Tens of millions have had a taste of freedom, or an experience of a different, perhaps less strenuous kind of work. Employers faced with an unprecedented labor shortage are having to tempt workers back and even to improve conditions of pay and employment. This is what unions used to do for workers and it must go against the grain for employers to play the union role.

We need real workers doing real work. Under all the semi-mystical claptrap about computers and artificial intelligence is the fact that we live in a physical world, a built world, and somebody had to build it. The most exquisitely sensitive poets needs a solid roof over their heads, but few of them would know how to construct one any more than I do.

Studs Terkel, in his wonderful book of interviews called Working, reported conversations with many real workers. One said, in a proud phrase: “We built the pyramids” — meaning that workers just like him built the pyramids and everything else. It used to be called the dignity of labor and we don’t hear much about it these days.

We owe a lot to workers who really work, often with hard-to-learn skills and hard-won experience. Without them, us white collar spectators might have to work ourselves, which scarcely bears thinking about.

At the very least we should spare a thought once a year on Labor Day for the men and women who really did build the house we’re sitting in, the power lines that run our computers, the barbecue grill, the bridges we cross on the way to visit the family, the swimming pool and, yes, everything.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.