Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Laborious Labor Day

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Total Black: $75.45
Total Red: $228,312.40

Just a year ago, Dalton Conley penned a New York Times op-ed piece titled “Rich Man’s Burden.”  He noted that, in an era of Blackberries and internet, Labor Day meant very little for white-collar Americans.  “[I]t is now the rich,” he wrote, “who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most.  Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do.”  What a difference a year makes.

It’s Labor Day. And, as the Associated Press reported on Saturday in an article “For the Jobless, Labor Day is Hardly a Holiday,” nearly 15 million people won’t be enjoying a respite from labor.  Jeanine Aversa in a article titled “For Unemployed, Labor Day Another Stress” (that same AP article, just curiously titled another way) reported that that the Unemployed will, instead of relaxing on Labor Day, “once again need to prepare to get up, hit the pavement and keep hunting for a job.”  Sure, that’s all true. But it’s not exactly correct.  Being employed is measured other than by days off.  And being unemployed is measured other than by days on.  And Labor Day isn’t just a day to be off. According to the History Channel’s website,, Labor Day is “the celebration of the value and dignity of work, and its role in the American way of life.”  The United States Department of Labor’s website states that Labor Day is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.  It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

But wait just a gosh-darn, cotton-pickin’ minute.  Labor Day may have morphed into a day of relaxation and an opportunity to pay lip-service to the American worker, but that’s not really what the holiday was all about.  In fact, worldwide, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1 not in September.  The United States Congress selected a September day for our Labor Day to avoid associating the holiday with the late 19th Century labor riots, particularly the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman Strike, and with budding socialist and communist movements.  But the call for a Labor Day was not merely to secure a day off of work or to supply soapboxes to silver-tongued lip servicers.  Rather obtaining regular days off and ensuring regular working hours and more human working conditions was its lodestar.  Achieving a Labor Day was one victory for the Labor and Union movements along the long road to national reform efforts.  So, it seems to me a bit disingenuous to claim that “the Jobless”—now a noun and not an adjective—wouldn’t really see this as a holiday.

Labor Day crystallized national efforts of American workers to recapture some of their agency and probably served as a rallying point for subsequent efforts, like child labor laws or the eight-hour workday.  Labor and union leaders drew lines in the sand and refused to budge—perhaps somewhat to a fault.  Regardless of the color of your collar though, Labor Day is an opportunity to celebrate the labors of workers past, which bore the fruits we enjoy today.  Viewed that way, Labor Day could never be some thorn in the side of the Jobless.  Nor should it be a mere day-off for the Employed. Instead Labor Day is an opportunity to be thankful for the collective efforts of my grandfathers who worked in the mines and your grandmothers who worked in the garment industry to push back against an ever-increasingly mechanistic society that viewed workers as means to another end.

As I see it, much of today’s industrial angst revolves around how we frame the issue of employment.  When people define themselves by their paid labor, and subsequently by their bank accounts, being laid-off or unemployed starts the slide into losing money, and then to losing self-confidence, self-esteem, and overall mental health.  But who said it has to be that way? If you had a job and were also independently wealthy, getting laid-off mightn’t be that much of a bother.  In fact, you could even keep working at the same job for free.  Instead it’s this link between labor and wages that creates this volatile mix.  So, in that sense, it might, in fact, be that the burden, as Conley called it, has now fallen to the rich man to push back against the machines of white-collar labor to demand his own eight-hour day equivalent.  I don’t know that white-collar workers have that blue-collar courage though.

Regardless of being Jobless at the moment, I’ll enjoy this Labor Day because I know that my worth is not tied to having or not having a job.  It comes from the efforts of all those who went before me to ensure human decency and dignity for the American worker, whether employed or not.  Sorry Aversa, this Labor Day won’t be another stress for this Unemployed.

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