Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day

[posted by Callimachus]

Today America celebrates its love-hate relationship with work.

In my younger days I freelanced as a writer for some time, and supported myself between publishers' checks by taking very menial temporary jobs. If you want to imagine "the kind of jobs Americans won't do," these are what comes to mind: Laundry room of a hospital. You hear the thump of another load drop down the chute and you steel yourself before opening the hatch in case it's blood-stained. You thrust your hands deep into a bin full of unsorted dirty linen, hoping there's not a used needle hiding in it.

And, sure enough, on almost all the jobs I worked, I was one of the only white faces. A lot of blacks, a lot of immigrants. I never worked jobs where friendships formed more easily. You showed up at 7:30 a.m., and by lunchtime you were swapping stories and jokes. People had nothing in common and everything in common just because they were there.

On one assignment I was sent out with about 30 other people to a high hangar-sized warehouse full of new clothes on racks. All the clothes had dry-cleaner-style cellophane wrappers over them. Our job was to strip off the wrappers. So we worked all one summer day in the hot, stuffy room, going down the long rows. The bags were perforated at the shoulders, and pretty soon you got to know a slow downward sweep was the easiest way to strip the garments. Like I said, almost all minorities. I stood up at one point to ease my back and watched my co-workers in their rows and got a quick flashback to what a cotton plantation must have looked like at harvest time. At lunch break I sat out on a bench with a guy named Mike who thought Michelob was an import. We drank Old English 800 and discussed the relative merits of banging fat girls and thin girls.

Labor is hard work and toil, the kind of activity we collectively take pride in rolling up our sleeves and doing. Yet this is the land where people from around the globe came to compete for a chance to to live well and work easy, to escape the grind of villeinage and the backbreaking factory mills.

For 400 years, America has been "the best poor man's country," where a son of peasants could dream of being a boss or a landowner. The consequences of that are in our history and in our current events. "Jobs Americans won't do" is a complaint as old as the first colonists, who turned to African slaves to do the drudgery.

Slavery grew out of the paradox the new continent presented to its European masters. So much land was available, so cheaply, that no one was willing to come to America and sign on to work as a laborer. The dream that drew Europeans across the Atlantic was owning acres of land or making a fortune in a trade or a craft. It was an attainable dream. In the 1680s a landless Welsh peasant from the mountains of Montgomeryshire could bring his whole family to Pennsylvania for £10 and acquire 250 acres for another £5; placing just one son in a trade in Britain would have cost the family £7.

Yet workers were needed in the new continent to clear the land, work the soil, build the towns. Because of this acute labor shortage, all the American colonies turned to compulsory labor. In New Netherland, in the 1640s, a free European worker could be hired for 280 guilders a year, plus food and lodging. In the same time and place, experienced African slaves from the West Indies could be bought outright, for life, for 300 guilders.

The Dutch West India Company imported slaves to New Netherland to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. It was company-owned slave labor that laid the foundations of modern New York, built its fortifications, and made agriculture flourish in the colony so that later white immigrants had an incentive to turn from fur trapping to farming.

But private settlers still faced an acute shortage of agricultural labor that was retarding the colony. A company audit report noted that, "New Netherland would by slave labor be more extensively cultivated than it has hitherto been, because the agricultural laborers, who are conveyed thither at great expense to the colonists sooner or later apply themselves to trade, and neglect agriculture altogether."

Later Irish immigrants worked the deadly mill jobs. Now we fill the low-wage jobs that must be done with workers from Mexico and points south. Or we ship the jobs overseas altogether. And we argue about the consequences.

For all our national wealth, we still work, work willingly, and work as hard as any people in the world. As you read this, your fellow citizens sweat and strain to carve coal from a Utah mountain, or build a water filtration plant in Iraq, or hammer a neighborhood back together in New Orleans. Sons of immigrants, or sons of slaves, we may be ambivalent about labor, but we're not afraid of it.