“Nothing will work unless you do,” Maya Angelou wrote, living up to her tireless body of work.
And so now as summer ends and the vacations dwindle, leases on the summer rentals expire, and the sunset white parties on the ocean decks of the East End fade to black, it will soon be time to get back to work.
“Without labor, nothing prospers,” wrote Sophocles, after a hard day’s work.
So after the final party guest says goodbye, think of those who have mowed the lawns and trimmed the hedges and prepared the food, served the drinks, and now clean the mess, and pick up and haul away the garbage.
Tip your end-of-summer party hat to the workers. Because they are who Labor Day is meant to celebrate — the working class people of the United States of America, a country that was built on the sweat and toil of immigrants.
There is a historical debate over who did the initial work to create Labor Day. But both sides of the argument trace it to the trade union movements of the late 19th century. Some say the idea was hammered out at the general assembly of the clandestine Knights of Labor convention in New York City in 1882. Others credit the genesis of Labor Day to a labor leader named Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union, who, in that same year of 1882, organized the first Labor Day parade in New York City on September 5 and lobbied for a national holiday celebrating the working classes.
After that first parade, the CLU held a big picnic, where the working people — who built this nation from the roads and rails of Montauk Point to the transcontinental railroad connecting us to the Pacific Ocean — celebrated themselves and their families.
Others think Labor Day can be traced even further back to these timeless words from Ecclesiastes: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.”
Whatever its roots Labor, Day should be a time to celebrate the common working stiff. So this Labor Day raise a glass to those workers who build our homes, patch our roofs, remodel our bathrooms and kitchens, do our landscaping, bus our tables, and wash the dishes from which we eat gourmet food in the marvelous summer restaurants of the Hamptons.
On this single Labor Day, at least, let’s celebrate the people whose labor makes our lives better 365 days a year. Many have traveled thousands of miles, distancing themselves from their home countries, families and loved ones not to steal, sell drugs, or murder or rape as one unindicted co-defendant in a national scandal has claimed in endless bigoted rants.
No, they came to work.
That’s why my immigrant parents came to America from Ireland. Not in search of a handout or a life of crime. They came to America for that celebrated four-letter word called w-o-r-k. My mother sold tickets in a movie theater and folded clothes in an industrial laundry through the night. My father worked in a sweatshop factory, standing all day on his wooden leg at an assembly line so that he could feed his seven American children reared in a tenement and a housing project.
“If any man tells you he loves America yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, but fears labor, he is a fool,” said Abraham Lincoln, our hardest working president.
My immigrant parents had the benefit of being white and speaking English, but our family never went on a real vacation until my father’s factory was unionized by Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Then for the first time in his American life, my father earned a living wage, received paid sick days and paid vacation, medical coverage, and a pension.
My mother was a devout Catholic, but the Good Book in our house was not the Bible. It was my father’s union book. That IBEW Local 3 union book earned us our first vacation in a tiny beach bungalow for a week in Keansburg, New Jersey, and we thought we were living as large as the movie stars on Dune Road.
This was the fruit of my father’s American labor. He celebrated Labor Day with his Local 3 union book in his breast pocket because it was like a second beating heart.
So I celebrate my father and my mother’s immigrant sweat and toil every Labor Day. I think of them every time I hear some willfully ignorant xenophobic fool denigrate the calluses and aching backs of the undocumented workers among us. These are the hard-working people who instead of marching in parades or celebrating at official picnics this weekend must live in the shadows with ICE agents tracking them like bloodhounds, Javert trailing Jean Valjean.
For the crime of work.
“No work is insignificant,” said the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
And let’s face it, without the daily toil of these hard-working immigrants, life would be a lesser experience for the legal residents of the East End.
So here’s to all workers on this Labor Day.