Labor with a Capital L
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This is Marc Porter Zasada with The Urban Man for KCRW.
It's Labor Day, and on the air this afternoon I had planned to celebrate not just working men and women, but Labor with a Capital L. I had planned to paraphrase Carl Sandburg and sing of the "husking, brawling, bare-headed builders of skyscrapers, stackers of wheat, and handlers of freight." Unfortunately, I got a little confused.
You see, once upon a time, "Labor" was a distinct political and social class. Labor held rallies, organized unions and spoke of economic justice. Labor was pictured in murals with big shoulders and steady eyes.
But lately, it's not so clear who qualifies for that kind of poetry.
This morning, for example, the Urban Man finds himself working on his laptop at a local hotel bistro, pulling together a Powerpoint show for a market consulting gig. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't qualify as labor in the classic sense. I mean, no muralist from the 1930s would picture me with big shoulders, carrying my laptop like Atlas across the pool deck. Still, I figure I share a lot with guys who do house-painting or brick-laying. I mean, I often work on an hourly basis, without benefits or a contract... even if I don't hang on streetcorners, waiting for clients to come by in pickup trucks.
Behind the grill in the bistro's open kitchen, three cooks joke around in Spanish, and I think: Surely they represent Labor with a capital L. But what about the thin-hipped actor serving as my waiter? I wouldn't call him "working class" exactly, even though he's probably the only guy here with a union card. Are actors really laborers? Writers? Do only grape-pickers who work in the sun and get paid by the basket merit economic justice these days? Only undocumented grape-pickers? What about that guy with the ponytail who sells kiwi at the Farmers' Market? What about consultants?
One sociologist claims that a real laborer works in a dangerous or dirty environment with close supervision and limited opportunities. And surely there are still handlers of freight and stackers of wheat who qualify under that definition--people who'd really appreciate a little Carl Sandburg this afternoon. But mostly, you have to admit that officially speaking, "the working class" no longer exists. At some point, the powers-that-be convinced everyone in America that we are all actually entrepreneurs--some of us just sell our sweat a little less successfully than other entrepreneurs. And if only, like Donald Trump, we could all leverage our 401(k)s more effectively, we'd all come out fine.
Once I went strolling with a friend who's worth about $90 million, and when we passed a homeless woman begging on the sidewalk, he remarked, "You know, it really sucks when you run out of working capital." And I thought: surely, we have achieved a wonderfully egalitarian point of view--as if there were no distinctions; as if we were all on the same economic ladder, just a higher or lower rung; as if, at any moment my friend might also find himself short of working capital and have to rejoin the labor pool.
Lately, I notice that even unions have dropped the idea of a "Working Class" and seem eager to join the management team on the theory that "we're all capitalists, in this thing together." It may be a political downgrade, but we are assured that workers have experienced a social upgrade by giving up their notions of class solidarity. Lately, I notice that even big-shouldered men prefer to go unmuraled and uncelebrated.
Me, I'm not so sure. Somewhere within this bold transformation, I wonder if we have lost something important: Some essential dignity which does not attach to the entrepreneur; some poetry produced only by men and women who believe in things created well and by their own hands, day in and day out.
Still, I want to get with the program, and this Labor Day, the Urban Man imagines pushing aside his laptop, pulling the guys out from behind the grill and organizing a loud march along modern lines. We would join together: cooks, actors, consultants, stackers of wheat and handlers of freight. Heck, even my millionaire friend might come: I mean he's a pretty hardworking guy.
Together, we would demand some as-yet undefined economic justice. And yes, in my updated fantasy, we would all qualify as Labor with a capital L.
Copyright © 2006 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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