They don’t make Labor Day like they used to.
The shifting forms and meanings of labor have rendered Labor Day our most nebulous national holiday. For example, in gardening—a leisure activity—Labor Day is incorrectly considered the close of the season. For holiday-goers, it marks the end of summer—despite schools regularly starting weeks before the first Monday of September, and the calendar signaling the estival end two weeks later. Vacations and education seem conceptually quite remote from the industrial world that gave Labor Day its original meaning.
However, before some savvy marketer comes along to rebrand Labor Day (points of difference, unique selling propositions, call to action, etc.), let’s first decide what we are talking about when we talk about labor.
Labor has its roots in the Garden of Eden. In the Book of Genesis, God, divinely piqued by Adam and Eve’s snacking on the apple plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, condemns mankind to a life of work.
God tells Adam the rest of his life will be given to labor, as a result of sin. “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree, about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”
Adam, Eve, and their descendents—namely us—got off lightly. The Old Testament God had a notably short fuse, punitive streak and large arsenal of reprisals. Compared with plagues, earthquakes and floods, a life sentence of labor seems lenient.
But for God’s punishment, it’s hard to imagine how people were going to acquire their nourishment. Would grapes fling themselves into waiting mouths? Lettuce toss itself into bowls? Eggplants daub themselves in olive oil, roast themselves and vault upon the tongue? God’s decree created not only labor, but also the world’s oldest profession: gardening.
Since that awkward afternoon in the Garden of Eden, labor has been our fate. But its role, meaning and value are ever changing. For some, “labor” denotes unions like the UAW and Teamsters; but the American labor union is now an endangered species, vanishing faster than an Arctic glacier. In 1945, more than one-third of employed Americans belonged to unions; union membership stands now at 12.5%. If you exclude government unions, the number shrinks to 7.8%.
For others, “labor” might imply work performed at a place of business, whether office or factory. Today, though, the divide between company and home, work and leisure, is increasingly blurred. Americans are at work everywhere—you can’t avoid them. Homes, cafes, parks, libraries, trains, planes, cars, and even sidewalks now comprise the Great American Office—a 24/7 virtual workplace extending and interconnecting wherever there are radio waves or fiber optic cable.
Increasingly, modern-day workers rely more on their heads than on muscular or manual skill to stoke the new hybrid engine of American commerce. Liberated from the dictates of timeclocks and the confines of cubicles, today’s “knowledge workers” view their Bedouin work life as a major advance over their parents’ 9-5 corporate grind and light years from the sweaty daylong exertions of workshop and field.
Such workers exult in what they view as their new freedom and flexibility. Their cherished Blackberries, I-Phones and netbooks liberate them from humdrum office life. This love affair with technology smacks of what Marxist theory terms “false consciousness”—the failure to recognize that the instruments of personal oppression and exploitation are self-imposed. It’s also a romance the modern union bosses have a rough time finding room in. Thus, most New Age labor is neither especially gilded, much less gilded. In our mercurial 21st century marketplace, job security, fringe benefits and health plans are sometimes as rare as sightings of Cesar Chavez.
When it comes to etymology, the word “labor”, like all indispensable words—”human”, “culture”, etc.—derives from agriculture, specifically the word for plough. Only since 1835 has the general term “labor” served to designate a broad category of workers. Until then, “labor” meant onerous work, travail.
Yet, there is one place where the meaning of labor can be freed of ambiguity, alienation and anomie. To get there, let’s go right back to where we, and labor, trace our origins: the garden.
In the garden we can rediscover labor’s original—and perhaps even prehistoric—meaning, purpose and satisfaction. I foresee that the garden will emerge, repurposed, and become an essential new element of not just the nation’s evolving life style, but also a more familiar, less alienated conjunction of work and pleasure.
On this Labor Day, consider how supplying your family with fresh, nutritious and safe homegrown food is one job that will not be downsized, where you will always be your own boss, and where you truly reap the fruits of your labors. Here truly is a labor of love.