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Working With Dignity

— Most thoughts of Labor Day are restricted to planning long weekends and remembering put out your garbage a day late that week. But people who work in daily journalism have to find new ways to talk about these holidays every year. So here’s my take on Labor Day this year. It begins with a story.

Many moons ago I lived in Minnesota, where the state democratic party was called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. DFL for short. I remember watching a cable-TV broadcast of the state DFL convention. I don’t know if I had to watch it for work or whether I really had absolutely nothing better to do that evening.

I watched a speech by a party member whose name I can’t recall. He was a little guy with short black hair who came from some part of the party fringe. He was a bit of a nut and a gadfly.

His passionate, rambling address from the dais went over lots of stuff and not all of it made sense. But he made a comment I’d never forget when he said, “We in the DFL believe in the dignity of labor!”

Labor & dignity. I’d never heard those two words combined like that before. The comment came out of the blue and it sounded strange and unfashionable. Then, as now, the idea of working with your hands and your back, doing a menial job, was something you didn’t take a lot of pride in. It was something you did when you couldn't find anything else to do.

We may be sympathetic to those who are low on the totem pole. But our hopes for them center on getting them educated so they don’t have to work with their hands and their backs.

Today the changing needs of a high-tech economy put a premium on jobs that require a high degree of education. The upward pressure on those wages and the downward pressure on low-skill wages are undeniable and they will affect our marketplace. But we will always need people who work with their hands and backs and we owe them something more than poor pay and a bad attitude.

One big difference between Minnesota back then and Southern California today is most of the menial labor in San Diego is done by recent Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal. When I drive to Home Depot along Mission Gorge Road I pull into the parking lot and I see Spanish-speaking men who stand under shade trees hoping to get a job doing home improvement for anyone who has a few bucks to spend.

I think two things when I see them. I remember how lucky I am to not be one of them, looking for some slim chance to earn a few bucks doing any small job. But I also see them as people who prove to us that there is dignity in labor. They aren’t looking for a handout or something they’re entitled to. They’re looking for work. Labor day was created to honor men and women just like that.

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