Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day Past And Present

Happy Labor Day working America! It's a beautiful holiday in Georgia. Refreshing easterly winds are bathing the state in moderate temperatures and filling the sky with puffy cumulus clouds one usually sees rolling in off the Atlantic. My wife and I are having the pleasure of hosting my former colleague and his wife for the weekend. Ours is a friendship that extends across 45 years and in a broad variety of national park sites from sea to shining sea. Much of our conversation this weekend has been about those magnificent resources we had the honor to preserve and share with others. Of course the nature of our work required us to labor on most weekends including this one in our early careers. It wasn't always that way.

Old Tybee Ranger, Labor Day Picnic, Burlington, WV, ca.1950
My most memorable Labor Days occurred in the '50's and early '60's when I attended the big day-long mill employees picnic. The entire event was free, sponsored by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company that had essentially employed my home town for generations. Three to four thousand people attended those picnics and enjoyed carnival rides, dancing, bingo and board games, swimming, model train rides, softball, foot races and similar activities, real airplane rides, and a playground filled with wonderfully dangerous equipment - the greasy pig, flying boats, a center-pivot merry-go-round, a very tall and fast sliding board -  that could never be built today. It all ended with a movie under the stars at the drive-in theater next door. 

Although many of the kids I played with those days ended up working at the mill many of them went on to college, military service or other opportunities and adventures that took them away from small town life. In the long run I think those who left  made the right decision. Today, the mill exists under another name - Verso - and employs only a shadow of its former workforce, perhaps less than a quarter compared to its post World War II heyday. If it still exists, the Labor Day picnic has to be a mere shadow of the exciting event as I remember it. 

One item that does remain is the union wage and it's exceptionally good. Unfortunately the jobs are few and the quality of life in the region is wanting and now entering its seventh decade of decline. Regardless, throughout my life, I've always made a point to family, friends, and colleagues that all work is honorable. Every employee, from minimum wage to executive salary, contributes to achieving organizational success. That college diploma still largely determines where one will fall on the earnings scale; however, the formula may be changing. In fact, opportunities to develop skills beyond the campus have never been greater. Simply put, the American Dream may be closer to more employees now than ever. That should make a lot of people very happy, even in the midst of our economic downturn. If we could just find a way to resurrect an honest liberal arts curriculum in high school, I would be very pleased. It would anchor tomorrow's happy workers in the principles, ethics, and precedents necessary to understand, appreciate and perpetuate the best of the American experience as we have come to know it. Labor Days as I both remember and enjoy them today remain fine expressions of that experience. I hope yours is a happy day as well.

No comments: