When I was in my graduate program in economics, and chose Labor Economics as one of my fields, I would joke that I would someday deliver a baby and be, once again, “in labor.” Today, I remain a labor economist who focuses on the economics of nonprofit organizations, and it is this background in labor economics that makes me reflect this weekend as our country celebrates “Labor Day.”
My grandfather was only 19 in Italy when he met a man who was visiting from the United States. This man told my grandfather that in the U.S., the “streets are paved with gold” and that everyone wears silk shirts like the one the visitor was wearing. Inspired by these visions of prosperity, my grandfather took a boat across the Atlantic Ocean to join some distant relatives in New York City. Upon arriving, one of those relatives quickly told him that this was not a vacation, but that “this is America, and here in America, we work.” My grandfather took those words to heart and set out to build his life. I don’t remember him ever taking a vacation in all the years I knew him. Indeed, holidays were days that drew in extra revenue to his small business. If he was alive today, I suspect that he would, as he always did, view Labor Day as just another day to labor.
I remember his business, built on the foundation of his first job as an immigrant who did not speak English, where he hauled ice up stairs to the iceboxes of New York City. That job eventually became a small company that delivered ice and coal, later adding oil for cooking on kitchen ranges and eventually oil for heating the houses of suburbia. Despite the changes in his company, it was always known as “City Ice and Coal Company”, a prominent business in the small suburban town that he and my grandmother landed in on their “honeymoon” and never left. Grandma used to say that “I am still on my honeymoon.”
The work he and his son did was hard, back-breaking labor that took its toll on their bodies. They would come home several times a day between deliveries, tired and hungry and ready for a cup of coffee, which my grandmother (and eventually my mother) would have waiting for them. I remember the can of “Boraxo” hand soap and the fingernail brush in the bathroom, both always showing signs of being recently used, and the steel-toed boots they wore in even the hottest weather. There were relatives who became members and leaders in local unions, and as I reflect on their lives, I marvel at how hard they worked, and the fact that “hard work” for me means editing a paper on a computer, a device that Grandpa never lived to know existed. My grandmother, meanwhile, kept the books for their business and handled the customers. What today would require a degree in business she did with only natural talent and an education that ended at “continuation school.”
My daughter knows of her great grandparents from my side of the family, and even got to know her great grandmother well enough to give her a pet name of “Ma.” She also met her great grandmother from my husband’s side, and has memories of her only months before she died. The legacy of labor from his family is just as strong, but very different from my own ancestors. My husband traces his history back to farmers, a watchmaker and a hairdresser (and was there a horse trader in there, or is that just a family legend?), as well as some people who may have been in the United States since its earliest days. And so, I encourage my daughter to finish her homework each day, I hope that I can instill in her a legacy of the work ethic that helped the distant members of her family become the people they grew to be.
Wishing everyone who works, in whatever form, a wonderful Labor Day weekend!
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