Today is Labor Day, the bookend to Memorial Day, which marks the traditional start of summer. In this election year, we’ve become even more deeply divided between the right-leaning folks who commemorate the war dead on Memorial Day and the left-leaning folks who applaud common workers on Labor Day, as if one holiday were in direct opposition to the other. Labor Day celebrates the rise of unions, which have been under attack from the right this past year, and Labor Day honors the common workers who build the infrastructure upon which our day-to-day society rests. How can servicemen protect our freedoms overseas if there were not workers maintaining the structure of society here at home?
This year, the right is rallying behind the cry of “I built this,” a shorthand slogan pointing to the importance of individual initiative and industry. Labor Day is a holiday to acknowledge the workers whose collective effort make our individual accomplishments possible: I am able to build this because they worked so hard to build that. When you drive to work every day, who built that road? When you negotiate orderly, crime-free streets, who protects your safety? When you go to the grocery story to spend your hard-earned paycheck, who stocked those shelves?
Whenever I’m grocery shopping and see a delivery man stocking shelves, I smile because my Dad did that, driving a bread route for years. If there was bread on the shelf when you went grocery shopping this week, it was because some hard-working Teamster like my dad drove a truck to deliver it: it didn’t just appear there by accident or chance.
Given the goodies in your grocery cart, you can “build” all kinds of things, limited only by your own culinary initiative and skill. But don’t pretend that because you combined those ingredients into something tasty, you created those ingredients themselves. Somewhere, a laborer grew that produce, raised that livestock, or ground that grain into flour. If you’re able to read a cookbook, some teacher taught you how, and if your kitchen catches fire while you’re cooking, some firefighter will rush in to save you.
Focusing on one’s own accomplishments while ignoring the assistance one has received is arrogance, and thanking those who gave their lives in war while not acknowledging the living laborers who work for the common good is folly. Both kinds of service are essential, and both kinds of service demand their own kind of sacrifice. Honoring one without honoring the other is like cutting off your left hand to honor your right. The beauty of bookends is that they work together, this one supporting the other in a perfect metaphor of collective teamwork.
I snapped these shots of the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial last summer, when J and I vacationed in Seattle.