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HOLIDAY IS TIME TO APPRECIATE WORK.

Byline: James Bemis Commentary

Waking up early last Monday to another scorching day of triple-digit temperatures and facing a commute in a car without air-conditioning, I didn't feel too thankful about having to get up and go to work. In fact, I was downright grumpy about it.

After stepping out of the shower, though, I remembered that Labor Day weekend was coming up, meaning a day off, barbecues, time for family and friends, a last frolic with the kids before summer's end.

My mood brightened considerably: there are worse things than getting up and going to work, I thought, like not having work to get up and go to. Our ability to make a living depends upon the labor of others. This, it dawned on me, is the great significance of Labor Day - a time to slow down, relax, and think about the debt we owe to our fellow employees - and employers, as well.

Pretty obvious, I know. But in today's world - where the reaping is so distant from the sowing - it's easy to take for granted those whose labor improves our lives and overlook their skill, diligence, and creativity that makes a civilized life possible. We appreciate the product without acknowledging the producer. Once a year, though, we're reminded to tip our caps to those who make the world better, safer, easier or just more fun.

Fittingly, Labor Day has its roots in the union movement. The idea was the brainchild of Peter McGuire, leader of the Knights of Labor. He suggested that while there were holidays commemorating religious, civil and military observances, none represented ``the industrial spirit - great vital force of every nation.''

The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York on Sept. 5, 1882, featuring a march around Manhattan's Union Square by 10,000 workers. Later, there were picnics, dancing, fireworks and, naturally, speeches extolling the virtues of the working class. So successful was the event that unions called for its annual celebration, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

The idea caught on. From its union beginnings, Labor Day began honoring the broader contribution made by all workers to life in this country. Oregon first recognized Labor Day on Feb. 21, 1887. Within a few years, 30 more states added the workers' holiday as an official celebration. In 1894, Labor Day became a federal holiday, fulfilling Peter McGuire's dream.

Much of our thinking about the value and dignity of a good day's labor comes from what sociologist Max Weber called ``the Protestant work ethic,'' a term you don't hear much anymore. Under Weber's thesis, early Protestants brought to this country an attitude of hard work and thrift as religious and moral obligations.

For earlier generations of Americans, work was considered a calling, a way of honoring God. Thus, any legitimate work had inherent value, no matter how menial or low-paid. Laura Ingalls Wilder's ``Little House'' books - among this country's greatest literary works - provide some of the best portrayals of the old American work ethic. Her parents' self-reliance and industriousness would shame today's hardest-working entrepreneurs.

Although the welfare state has undercut much of this work ethic, belief in the value of industry in building character and responsibility remains strong. Our own self-image and spiritual well-being are still directly tied to how productively we spend our waking hours - no different than in Laura Wilder's day.

``Every man's work is a portrait of himself,'' observed author Samuel Butler. By extension then, this Labor Day is an opportunity for Americans to see our collective self-portrait at the end of the 20th century: a nation industrious and more than a little self-conscious, deeply perplexing, yet teeming with life.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 6, 1998
Words:611
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