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Hard work

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This is the one day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. Work has or had a very special status in America. It was traditionally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. Labor Day, established in 1894, honors the history of the Trade Union Movement that protected workers and gave them a political voice.

Labor unions are not so popular these days, unless you are lucky enough to belong to one, and work is not so much respected as it once was. I mean what my father would have called “real work,” where you get your hands dirty, use your muscles and maybe even sweat a little. Most people, myself included, naturally prefer a job where the most challenging physical task of the day is switching on the computer. There is plenty of strenuous physical work that needs to be done in the world, but almost no connection between the importance 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.

There is a curious paradox here. Labor, in the sense of physical work, is unpopular and avoided at all costs. But there are fitness centers everywhere and millions participate in exhausting rituals like sports and marathons. It seems that it’s good to punish your body, but only if you are not paid for it.

Unfortunately, we still need physical labor and the people who perform it. Under all the semi-mystical claptrap about artificial intelligence and virtual reality is the fact that we live in a physical world, a built world. Somebody had to build it, and somebody has to maintain it. Even the most exquisitely sensitive poet needs a solid roof over his or her head, but few of them would know how to build one, any more than I do.

Studs Terkel, in his revealing book of interviews called Working, talked to many real workers. One said, in a proud phrase that stuck in my mind, “We built the pyramids” — meaning that workers just like him built the pyramids, and everything else. He was claiming what used to be called the “dignity of labor,” a phrase we don’t often hear these days.

It’s not just the big physical jobs like building bridges and high rises. We depend almost completely on the workers who save us from our own, everyday incompetence, with hard-to-learn skills and hard-won experience. Without them we paperwork professionals might have to do some real work ourselves, which scarcely bears thinking about. When the car breaks down or the air conditioner fails, we don’t reach for the toolbox we reach for the phone.

Try standing at a busy suburban junction and counting the white vans that go past. Electricians, plumbers, builders and lawn services seem to be most numerous, followed by the whole range of domestic needs and desires: satellite and cable TV companies, carpet professionals, window and glass repair, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, roofing, pool services, tree services and nameless trucks to perform nameless services. Perhaps these last belong to those semi-mythical “handymen” who can fix anything, and who therefore need to keep their identities secret.

What a lot of maintenance we suburban dwellers seem to need, and how useless we have become in practical matters. We’re a long way from colonial self-sufficiency. We should spare more than a thought on Labor Day for the armies of men and women who really did and do build the nation and keep it running. What on earth would we do without them?

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.