Commentary: Celebrating the gift of work on Labor Day

Labor Day poster


By Joe Bell, Esq.

Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a best seller about a man who works at a boardwalk amusement park. When he first inherits the job from his father, the job is described in a very poignant way. Mr. Albom writes that his father “gave him the gift of work.”

We don’t ordinarily think of work as a gift – except when we’re unemployed.

Work gives us an opportunity to obtain the basics in life and, if we’re lucky, helps us to afford the extras as well. Work also gives us a sense of accomplishment, pride, purpose and well-being.

Work provides us with a sense of empowerment, since every person who gets out of bed, goes to work and performs a day’s work truly deserves a full share of respect from others.

Early morning is when you first get to see the workers. They dress, make breakfast, pack children’s lunches during their last sip of coffee, then dash out of their homes.

Here in New Jersey, in cold and hot weather, battling ice, rain, hail, sleet, storms or snow, they travel chronically congested roads leading to gridlock on Routes 10, 23, 24, 46, 80 or 287, hoping against hope there are no tie-ups due to overturned vehicles or accidents.

Others travel by bus or train hoping to score a parking space close to the station. All this so that they, their families and society can enjoy the benefits of their labor.

The whole pattern is reversed – on a massive scale – on their return trip.

Monday is Labor Day, a day dedicated to YOU, the American worker. It marks a yearly tribute to the contributions you make to the well-being and prosperity of your families, the state and the country.

Historians differ on who is the actual founder of Labor Day.

Some believe that Peter J. McGuire, an Irish-American co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, a cabinetmaker and pioneer unionist, was the first person to propose a day dedicated to “all who labor.”  Historians describe him as a fiery, red-headed, eloquent leader of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

McGuire introduced his idea at a meeting of the Central Labor Union on May 16, 1882. His suggestion was to create a day “to honor those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

But the origins of Labor Day are disputed since Matthew McGuire, a machinist and secretary of Local 344 of the International Machinists located in Paterson, proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Council.

This McGuire, it is said, created Labor Day as a “tribute to American workers and in celebration of their efforts 365 days of the year.” In 1894, President Cleveland established Labor Day as a national holiday.

Some of his critics claimed he established the holiday just to end a railroad strike, but whatever the reason, the bookend holiday to Memorial Day was officially created and American workers had a day to call their own.

My favorite story of work as a gift does not exactly have to do with Labor Day. But it does include American stalwarts such as hard work, baseball and equality.

During the depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Works Project Administration. The purpose of the WPA was to provide jobs for men and women throughout the country in all areas of public improvement.

Some of the WPA projects were building dams and roadways; others included writing travelogues about all the states to encourage tourism.

One of the great local projects in New Jersey under the WPA was the construction of Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The construction of this stadium provided work to people all over New Jersey and proudly stood in Jersey City for about 50 years.

During that time, Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player, played his first game as a Brooklyn Dodger against the Giants. Many were saddened by the demolition of the stadium in 1985, but its removal and the subsequent construction of Society Hill provided even more people with “the gift of work.”

As we celebrate the last hurrah of summer, let us salute the contributions of the American worker.

Let us also honor those who are unable to picnic due to serving our country in the military. Let us also not forget our nurses, doctors, firefighters, police and rescue squad volunteers, as well as waiters, waitresses and everyone else who works on the holiday.

Labor Day, to serve us.

Former Morris County Clerk Joe Bell is an attorney practicing in Rockaway.

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