Essayist Julia Kellar Reflects on Labor Day

September 4, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JULIA KELLER, The Chicago Tribune: Labor Day is here again,
the day originally set aside in 1882 to honor America’s trade unions.

The nature of work has changed drastically since that very
first Labor Day. Just ask the next blacksmith you come across. But the place
work occupies in our lives hasn’t changed at all. Labor is more than just what
we do. It’s who we are.

Most of us don’t work on farms anymore, as we did in the
19th century, or in factories, as we did in the 20th. An increasing number of
us work in what’s called the information economy. We sit amid quietly humming
computers in air-conditioned offices.

On Labor Day, we ought to pause over the word itself: labor.
In these times, it sounds quaint, almost old-fashioned. It sounds like muscles
and grunts, like rolled-up sleeves and paint-spattered pants, like difficult,
enervating physical toil.

Your basic 21st century city wants to be known for its sleek
technological sophistication, for cool, hip economies that don’t raise a sweat
or make a stink, for wi-fi, for hands-free.

But, here in Chicago,
one of the slogans is “The City That Works.” It’s a curious motto to
carry around in the year 2006, but maybe it’s in our geographical genes. This
is the place, after all, that Illinois
native Carl Sandburg rapturously called “the city of the big

“Hog butcher for the world,” he went on,
“toolmaker, stacker of wheat, stormy, husky, brawling.” In the same
1914 poem, Carl Sandburg celebrated a city fond of shoveling and wrecking and
planning and building — nothing hands-free about that.

Those of us who don’t get dirty in the course of a workday
tend to carry an image of labor — real labor — as something requiring
vigorous and sustained exertion. We admire the roofer, the mason, the mechanic,
the carpenter, the coal miner, the electrician, people who create things, who
mend things, who make things go, things you can touch, things you can use.

My father was a college mathematics professor. His father
worked in an ice cream factory. And I know there lingered deep in my father’s
soul a sense that his own work, teaching and writing, was not actually work at
all — not real work, that is, not the kind of work that leaves you spent, but
satisfied, exhausted, but exhilarated, not the kind of work that leaves you
bent and bruised, but aglow.

The way lots of us now make our living — perched in front
of computers — feels a little bit like cheating. It doesn’t offer the promise
of gritty redemption that you can find in real labor.

Playwright Arthur Miller was born in the East, but educated
in the Midwest. This is where he started
writing. And it shows.

ACTOR: I’m tired to death, Linda. Couldn’t make it.

JULIA KELLER: In “Death of a Salesman,” he has
somebody say of Willy Loman, “He was a happy man with a batch of
cement” — happy, that is, with something more real than smiles and likability.

As the world changes, work changes. We can do so many things
faster now, faster and smoother and smarter. And, yet, there’s something lost,
too, when we no longer feel, at the end of the work week, that delicious ache
of a body pressed to its very limit, a body that hums with the good/bad feeling
of fatigue.

Labor — real labor — tethers us to the world. Through that
kind of labor, we can actually see what we have made and what we’re made of.

I’m Julia Keller.