In September each year, we celebrate a holiday unlike all others. Labor Day is not explicitly patriotic or religious, as are other holidays. My 16-year-old son, Aaron, asked me, “Dad, why do we have a Labor Day holiday?” In answering, I realized that a simple historic recitation would not do.
First, what is labor? It’s the act of “making something useful out of nothing.” By useful, I’m thinking about things that meet basic human needs: food, shelter, health, security — we might also add transportation and education to the list.
Some may limit the scope of labor and the holiday to physical labor, but that misses something important: thinking as labor. If all that we really need to survive and thrive comes from labor, and I argue that it does, then labor necessarily includes all the innovation and creativity that springs from our human brain.
Because today we live in a complex economic world of machines, robots, world trade, computers and all the rest, it is easy to forget that what underlies it all is labor. When looked at this way, it’s entirely appropriate that once a year we celebrate human labor.
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America is an extremely wealthy nation, with abundant natural resources including water and, for the most part, excellent soils and climate. Therefore, our farmers and ranchers through their labor produce an abundance and we as a nation have no food shortages. We have a good transportation system, excellent educational facilities, and an economic and governmental system that provides security and encourages innovation. And all this wealth, ultimately, comes from labor.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s imagine you own a woodlot with large fir trees. You might feel wealthy — after all, these towering giants are valuable. But really those trees are only potential wealth. What turns them into actual wealth for you is human labor, the cutting, hauling, sawing and marketing of lumber, and all who labor receive a share of that new wealth. That’s where paychecks really come from.
Providing labor its share of the wealth hasn’t always been the American way, however. For generations, our nation, and the colonies before them, built wealth on the backs of unpaid labor — slaves. This wealth accumulated throughout our nation, not just in the South where it was centered, and that wealth continues to benefit our nation to this day.
Also, in today’s political world there is much discussion of migrant labor, usually focusing on the first word — migrant. But it also is important not to lose sight of that second word. With their labor, migrants have built and are building the wealth of America.
Of course, wealth and money have always been accumulated and sometimes ostentatiously shown off, for example with jewelry, estates and mansions. But in the 19th Century something new was underway. Wealth, called capital, was being invested in manufacturing and industry. Think of a steel mill. It took huge wealth to build the mill, open iron ore and coal mines, develop shipping networks and hire workers, all before iron was even produced.
This investment of wealth in industries and manufacturing, large and small, is what we call capitalism. The wealth and progress produced by the sum of this no-longer-new approach is beyond measure. Today it is corporations, with multiple owners and investors, that largely have replaced wealthy individuals in capital investment. And these corporation allow many folks, not just the wealthy few, to get involved. And still, underlying it all was and is labor.
Although I’m a month late, I urge you to take a moment to appreciate all that labor provides for us. Some of the things I appreciate most are the simple things: fresh fruit grown, picked and shipped for me, or that fresh delicious donut made just for me.
But I also appreciate that quite nearby I can purchase the lumber, plywood and other building materials I need for my next home project. And I appreciate the public employees who labor for me, from securing safe drinking water and to providing security and emergency response for my home and neighborhood.
When I reflect, I realize that there are numerous people that labor for my benefit. Who is laboring for you today?
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2017 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org