September 2, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

No more ‘hod carriers’ on Labor Day

On Labor Day, Americans honor the nobility of work and the workers who do it. It’s an event marking the idea that work, also known as career or profession or vocation, is an essential part of a worthy life. It not only provides people with sustenance, but also with personal fulfillment.

This holiday was conceived mainly to honor workers who were members of labor unions, people who did the menial or less glamorous tasks in our society. Their titles were not “Doctor” or “Professor” and they were not addressed as “Sir,” but rather by their first names or by the name of their job, as in “hod carrier.”

Speaking of hod carriers, how many folks today even know what that is? That’s another point about Labor Day: Many of the jobs that were common when it was created no longer exist. Carrying coal around in a hod is no longer necessary in these days of electric or gas furnaces.

In fact, much of the “labor intensive” work of former times, requiring several people to accomplish it, is now served by machines that do it all by themselves. The only human work involved may be throwing a switch or checking gauges now and then.

This fact may make people happy because they no longer need to pitch hay or dig ditches or perform some other backbreaking task for hours on end, probably in extreme heat or cold. Furthermore, they won’t simply wear out and die young as many did.

The upside of that kind of physical work was that it kept folks fitter and healthier. Obesity was unheard of then, unless someone had a “thyroid condition.” The fitness craze we have today would certainly amuse our grandparents.

Sadly, some other pleasant things have been lost in the change to modern kinds of work, along with the bad. For instance, farm families miss the excitement and sociability of a chore like threshing at harvest time, if not the hard, sweaty work it entailed.

Farm ladies slaved for days ahead and then all day, every day, at one home or another to feed the hungry threshing crews a huge noontime dinner and leftovers at supper. Meanwhile, the men went from farm to farm until the harvest was done, sharing their equipment and their hard labor to bring in the grain or the corn or whatever crop was ripe. But there was something fine about the camaraderie and friendly conversation at the event, too.

Domestic service doesn’t exist any more either, except in the homes of the very rich. The live-in cooks, maids, second maids, laundresses, gardeners and chauffeurs of the past have given way to the weekly cleaning lady or the food preparation service or the monthly garden man. But where’s the fun of the backstairs gossip, or the feeling of importance that came along with serving a rich or powerful family?

Even the work involved in religious vocations has changed a bit. Now, many religious sisters live and work outside their communities, priests cook their own dinners and married couples both have jobs outside the home.

The Nazis said, “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes us free), which was a cruel lie for their victims. But, whatever the work we do, it should be worthy of respect on Labor Day and every day.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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