Celebrating the universal work ethic

Old Order Mennonite farms dot the landscape in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

Americans will enjoy yet another three-day weekend in the U.S. with Labor Day picnics and outdoor events of all kinds. However, this year’s activities likely will best be tempered with proper physical distancing and perhaps a dab of humility, given all the national chaos.

Labor Day became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law in 1894. It designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor all those who work. Several states had done so previously after labor strikes and deadly battles between workers and authorities. The ugly details, unfortunately, compare equally to today’s ongoing strife in the U.S.

Growing up in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio, Labor Day served two purposes for the young. It was yet another three-day holiday weekend, and it marked the end of summer. A half-century or more ago, summer vacation from school ran Memorial Day to Labor Day.

As a youngster, I don’t recall being curious about why there was a Labor Day. As an adult, I now know that it was a hard-fought effort on the part of laborers for fair pay, decent work hours, and safe conditions.

Amish children routinely help adults with chores, especially on farms.

Even in a pandemic, we can easily forget or ignore the efforts of others to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. In that regard, Labor Day might be the most under-appreciated U.S. holiday.

During the Industrial Revolution, machines created jobs, and people willingly and unwillingly filled them. Men, and too often children as young as six-years-old, worked long, grueling hours, sometimes half a day with no overtime pay.

The children, of course, were paid far less than the adults for the same amount of work time. Such treatment helped bring about our current child labor laws.

It only seems logical to have a holiday that celebrates work. A strong work ethic is valued in cultures worldwide. Too often, however, folks don’t see it that way. They imagine that they somehow have a grip on the virtue of work, while at the same time chastising others as lazy or preferring government handouts.

Harvesting coffee beans in Honduras is a family affair.
Multiple trips to Honduras helped me see through that divisive thinking. Hispanics like to work as well and as hard as any other culture. They also did so earning less than a dollar an hour for a day’s work in maquilas, or sweatshops, making brand name clothing for citizens of the western world to wear.

We are fortunate in this country to have had workers who banded together in the 19th and early 20th centuries to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. Today, however, say the word “union,” and it might be the end of a budding conversation.

The truth of the matter is that were it not for unions and strikers, we might not be enjoying an extra day off of work this weekend. Given our fast-paced, 24/7 online universe, many workers might rightly wonder, “what day off of work?”

Our grandson mowing our lawn.
I much appreciate the influence of my parents, grandparents, and their peers in modeling the importance of having a strong work ethic. It helped my siblings and me in gaining an education, training, and extended careers.

Energetic peers surrounded my wife and me for all of our adult lives in Ohio’s Amish country, where work ethic continues to be revered. It’s equally so in the Appalachian and Old Order Mennonite cultures in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

This Labor Day, like every Labor Day, we will smile upon the generations of bold laborers who made it possible for us to work and play along life’s way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020