It was the day before Labor Day. It was many, many years ago – when only ½ of US households had a television set, the vast majority showed only black and white, and there were only three stations to choose from. That fateful red-letter Sunday my mother went into labor. It must have frightened her, even though she was a woman of great faith, for this was her first child.
For me and my existence, this was essential labor. Without it, I would not be on this earth. I’ve expressed gratitude and praise to her – both in person and to her soul – for her countless sacrifices and many achievements. She passed before I ever thought to thank her for this specific essential labor.
This delivery – and those of my two sisters within the following three years – occurred at the old St Anne’s hospital, on the near north-west side of Chicago. Well, things change, and St Anne’s was shuttered in 1988. Over the following decade or so most of the grounds and nearby surrounding region were re-purposed; most significant among them being the arrival of Beth-Anne Residences. This facility is dedicated to low-income and disabled elderly, many of whom require assisted living. It is run by a 501-c-3 organization. So perhaps I can “slip the surly bonds of earth” at the same place I arrived.
Labor Day: it’s the day we honor workers in America – even though much of the rest of the world does this on May 1. As we get out, have fun, fire up the grill, crack a beer, hike, bike, safely visit family and friends, and do the things we do on this end-of-summer holiday, we are tasked with recalling the importance of the American worker – the laborer. And we recall the struggle of the labor movement, especially from the last decades of the 19th century through the first few of the 20th – their victories in achieving reasonable rights, among them: safe labor conditions, 40-hour workweeks, end of child labor, and yes, the right to collective bargaining.
This year I extend that to “essential labor.” We’ll go here, as many businesses (and hence their workers in many cases) were deemed non-essential during this coronavirus pandemic. The best synonym, I submit, is “indispensable servant”; those without whom society could not function with any sense of decency.
Of course, we all mandatorily identify those who serve in the health care industries as such. From doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners; – to psychologists, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians. The breadth is wide indeed: who administers hospitals, keeps the lights on, cleans the toilets, keeps ambulances and fire trucks operational, manufactures and ships drugs & vaccines, fills and drops off liquid oxygen, cleans surgical devices …? All those people who answer the phone and answer your billing and insurance questions. It is a breathtaking list. Appreciate them all.
What would we do without food? Grocery store workers are essential. But so is everyone who works in the food supply chain. Migrants who harvest food. Fishermen. Workers who process food – often migrants as well. How many among us raise hogs, chickens? Collect eggs? Don’t forget the truck drivers, truck maintenance personnel, truck stop employees, truck and dock loaders and unloaders, even longshoremen who help us get our food. I’m sure I missed some. Appreciate them all.
What would we do without energy? Who keeps the electric power flowing to our houses so that our food stays fresh in our refrigerators and freezers? How many could work from home – or communicate with the world at all – without linemen, power plant workers, engineers and technicians who keep substations, transformers, and transmission lines operational. It’s been a hot summer in much of the country: jeepers creepers, what would we do without A/C? Even that is rather essential. Appreciate them all.
As humans, we are naturally social. Yet we’ve had to “socially distance” (a new verb there). To stay “in touch” is essential to our nature. So, don’t forget telephone and cell phone employees. And workers for internet providers.
Sanitation. What happens to your poop? What happens to your garbage? We’ve been in shut down for 6 months now. What if each one of us had to dispose of all that shit? Thank the garbage collectors, and anyone who supports them, like landfill workers. Thank the municipal laborers, engineers, chemists and technicians who work at and support the wastewater treatment plants – ensuring that the waste we flush, and all the stuff we send down the sink, does not ruin our environment.
Clean water. Water is essential to life. And steady access to clean water is essential to a healthy life. And good coffee. Many careers are dedicated to acquiring, treating and delivery of clean water to every household. That is surely indispensable.
Come to think of it: With clean water and wastewater disposal as essential, well, we have to add plumbers to the list of essential workers.
Protection. Law Enforcement has been in the spotlight a lot lately. It’s certainly not perfect. Yet it is critical – essential – to a society that respects individual rights. I include fire and rescue personnel here as well as in the medical section.
Even with reduced traffic we need to get out occasionally, if just to buy groceries. City engineers and technicians keep the traffic lights running.
And there’s protection at the national level. We can have a discussion about the size of our government and our nation’s defense: but we do need them. From scanning the skies and oceans, to cyberattacks of all sorts.
I know I missed some. And quite a few more that are nearly-indispensable. Child care. The natural gas industry (by which most of us heat our water, and will soon be heating our residences). Education: teachers, professors, para-professionals and cafeteria workers. School janitors, maintenance, and IT personnel. Transportation: mass transit workers (who often help essential workers get to work, or the grocery story), road maintenance. Even the evil banking and financial industry has kept the wheels of the economy creaking along; who maintains ATMs and answers your calls, and processes your quarantine on-line credit card purchases?
Many simply do not make the essential or nearly-indispensable list, like swaths of government and the entire entertainment industry. And that includes professional sports. Not gonna apologize; you all are simply not essential to life. We don’t need you Robert Redford, DiCaprio, Duval, LeBron, ad nauseum.
The “not even remotely indispensable” includes anyone who works for CNN, Fox, etc. Yep, don’t need you at all; I’m talking to you Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson. I turned you all off long ago and don’t miss you one bit. Life rolls merrily along, and much more calmly, without you.
Happy Labor Day! Enjoy, and also be grateful for those who labor. Thank the indispensable servants among us. This year, I task you all with identifying the less obvious indispensables. Especially those who do the things we cannot do or choose not to do. Appreciate them.
And mothers, thank them too. Thanks mom. See you someday.
Joe Girard © 2020
note: my mom gave birth 6 times. My siblings and I are all lucky and grateful for her many labors. After the first 3, the next was delivered in Evanston at St Francis Hospital. The last two (brothers) were in Wisconsin — I think Menominee Falls.