Why Labor?

On this Labor Day, I find myself meditating over the meaning of labor. Do we find our work laborious? Why labor over it? What is “it” that we pour so much of our time, physical energy and mental effort into?

That “it” for me, is a sense of serving others and myself. That “it” is also a sense of pride that I could support my living through my hard-earned money. I often consider myself lucky that I had worked in a professional creative field in the public service sector (media/journalism)  that I was absolutely passionate about.

Throughout my 20s and 30s as a TV reporter and producer, I had been called “workaholic” because I put work first, and sometimes lost track of the hours I kept when I immersed in the planning and production process of shooting, writing, or crafting a video piece. Everyone from the research unit and assignment desk, to the operations office, graphics department, the camera crews, and video editors, wracked their brains to help me execute my plan for the piece. We would fight over our differences, we would check up on each other’s progress, we sometimes drove each other crazy with changes and more changes to keep trying to improve the production quality. The process was tediously painful for all of us.  But it was worthwhile.  Our goal, as a team, was to drive the optimal result under tight deadline and challenging circumstances. Once we crossed the finish line and saw the rewards – good ratings, positive comments or accolades from our viewers, our peers or our boss, any or all of these make us say – Yes! We did it. Of course, there were times when our work got a bad review or backfired somehow. But that didn’t invalidate our labor, it just showed us we’d missed the mark. It forced us to re-assess and re-examine how best to serve public interest the next day.

Even though the word “labor” is less commonly used nowadays to describe the everyday process of the work in the business or professional arenas, this Labor Day is particularly poignant as I think about our society’s widening inequality gap and the truly laboring class.  What they do and what I used to do in TV news may involve different levels of intelligence and creativity, nevertheless, they require the same kind of grit to stick with whatever it takes to get the job done. The physical aspect of the labor is definitely of a higher order of magnitude. Whenever I notice a construction worker moving heavy equipment at a site on a sizzling day under the sun, a food delivery man with boxes of hot meals pedaling fast to dodge clogged lanes of traffic, or a cleaning lady bending over and under a toilet, I am reminded of the same question that must also have entered their mind at one point or another – what is “it” that I’m pouring so much of my time, physical and mental energy into? Why labor over it?  Their struggle is at a different level than mine – much harder and often dismissed or ignored.

As a humanist, I believe in the dignity and value of every job no matter how much our different work may appear more or less intelligent, well-paid, or prestigious. What is critically needed is our recognition that there is a wide spectrum of human intelligence at work, as well as suffering and sacrifice behind the labor that serves the needs of our society, economy and individual lifestyle.

On this Labor Day, I hope we can step outside our immediate work environment to actively notice the laborers amongst or around us. The meaning that they bring to their labor to serve all of us, deserves our recognition and support for more equitable pay, a stronger organization to fight for their rights, and a renewed appreciation that our work is interconnected. Our well-being and progress depends on everyone’s labor.