What is work all about, and a day to celebrate it?
Today we celebrate work by taking the day off of work. Well, many of us—one of the ironies of an occasion to honor the great strides the labor movement has made is that lots of low-wage workers are still working in retail, foodservice, agriculture and hospitality today.
That inequality exists in the workplace is nothing new, though it’s an issue that’s risen in recent years to be a major talking point among mainstream politicians. Locally, candidates of all political affiliations who are on the campaign trail will talk your ear off about the need for liveable wages, and the need for housing that’s affordable for their workforce near their workplace and the myriad benefits that can bring, from traffic reduction (practical) to a sense of community (abstract).
It’s easy to get caught up in grand ideals about work, how we derive meaning from it and it’s more than a way to earn a living. When he signed a minimum wage increase into law in 2016, former California governor Jerry Brown waxed philosophical about the increase—which was scheduled to go up in steps, from $11/hour to $15/hour in 2023—when he acknowledged the numbers might not make economic sense. “Work is not just an economic equation,” Brown said. “Work is part of living in a moral community…Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. Morally, and socially and politically, they make sense.”
In our work we seek a sense of purpose, meaning and dignity. A lot of us are lucky to find it, from journalists to bartenders, doctors to drivers. Some of the stories of those workers who feel empowered by their work are told in a selection of stories from the Weekly’s archives included below. (We’re digging into our archives because yes, we have the day off today.)
Some of the stories are about the ongoing toil for rights and recognition in the workplace. During Covid-19, that ongoing battle has been illuminated more clearly than ever in my lifetime. Suddenly grocery store workers, bus drivers, dishwashers, fishermen, farmworkers, postal delivery workers, gas station attendants and others have been deemed essential—in jobs that cannot be done safely from their living room on a laptop. They’ve donned whatever limited PPE they can muster and gone to work, at great personal risk, to keep our lives running with whatever normalcy can be mustered in these abnormal times.
Here’s to hoping the values of Labor Day can guide us as we recover from Covid-19—that the principles of basic worker rights and safety that gave us Labor Day starting in 1887 can help ensure workers are, at a minimum, safe. Hopefully, like Jerry Brown said, workers can also be engaged in a moral community. Happy Labor Day.
-Sara Rubin, editor, email@example.com