Labor Day Thoughts

Labor Day 2017

Labor Day and the World War II Honor Roll

Happy Labor Day! Labor Day makes me think of Memorial Day. Our historical society, SCHS, plays up Memorial Day in a big way with its annual Memorial Day ceremony on the green at St Lucas. The ceremony honors those who have given their all for our country, and that day signals the start of summer. The other end of summer, Labor Day, does not usually get much “hoopla” from this historical society, Sappingtpn-Concord Historical Society.

But looking at those names on our WWII Honor Roll monument in Sappington-Concord Memorial Park, as in the photo below, we see men and women who were serving in the military at a time of war, World War II. We usually think of serving in the military as just that, serving. Do we very often think of military service as work, labor? Maybe not so much. But could we? At least today?

We might all have those typical images in our minds of serving in the military; KP duty, digging trenches, training and more training, drilling, shooting practice, on and on. There is a lot to serving in the military in addition to fighting; a lot of work. The career military officer that served the best years of his or her life in the military; that was service, right? Well, if it is called a career, it surely can be recognized as work. It is labor and more labor. 

Going back to those names on the WWII Honor Roll. They were almost all young at the time of their service. Some gave their lives in service to our country. Many returned home to life in the civilian sector. They went to work, to support themselves, to support their families, to build their lives and futures. Some got their dream jobs, many just worked. Some worked with their hands and backs, in construction, farming, factory work. Some at a desk, student, lawyer, teacher or businessman. Some worked in the home doing the laundry, cooking, caring for the kids.

It’s all work, labor. We Americans take work seriously. We have one of the highest productivity rates in the world. We also have one of the highest numbers of work hours per year in the world.

Work is what we do five or six days a week, all day every day. Work makes up a large part of our daily life. It is unremarkable mostly, and unmemorable mostly. It is just a part of our day, like eating and sleeping. So if it is so much a part of our lives and it goes unnoticed, isn’t it a great thing to have one day to take a moment to reflect on it? Would that day be today, Labor Day? Is that what it is for you, a day to reflect, especially on labor?

I had a survey history course in college on, “The History of Work.” How mundane, you might think. It was anything but mundane. The course took us from the days of subsistence farming, through the days of our hard-drinking colonial farmer fore-bearers to the days of time clocks and regimentation in factories during the industrial revolution. Not only did the class teach us about the history of work, but something about what work might mean to us, in a larger sense.

We studied how the nature of work evolved as our economy evolved. We studied the first-hand testimony of ordinary people through the writings of Studs Terkel about what ordinary, every day people said about work. By the end of the course, we came to some startling conclusions, for college students, but perhaps obvious to the rest of the adult population. Conclusions such as, your work defines you. You are your work. When you work for $20 an hour, you are selling your life for $20 per hour. You spend the best hours of your day at work. You spend the best years of your life at work. Your work life is most of your life and you had better “spend” it well, with a job that is well suited to you, for you.

If one’s work is of such importance as all that, it may not be so much of a surprise that there is a special day dedicated to remembering work. Or do you think that Labor Day is just for the guy who labors with his hands and back? Or the union guy? Unions are responsible for starting Labor Day in America, after all. This is a day of many union sponsored parades in America. Unions helped shape our economy and our culture. Unions were responsible for the eight hour work day, banning child labor and the enforcement of safety regulations among many other innovations. These are the innovations that shape our culture today, our daily lives. These are the things that we take for granted.

Unions in the 1880s pushed for a holiday recognizing labor. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law the act to call the new holiday in September “Labor Day.” This differentiated the day from May Day, another holiday popular across the world which recognizes labor.

Going back to the WWII monument, if we said those serving our country are laboring, could we switch that around and say that those who are laboring as civilians are also serving a higher cause than themselves? Some of people in their work lives might say they are on a mission with their work. They could say they are working to help others. They could say that they are working to make the world a better place. Or maybe they are working for personal fulfillment.

Is your work satisfying? Fulfilling? If you are retired, is your work your hobbies? Or do you volunteer? Do you take care of your parents or your grandchildren? Besides finding fulfillment or being on a mission, do you feel appreciated by others for what you do?

If you are working for pay, do you feel your pay shows you proper appreciation? Are you well paid, or poorly paid? From the mid 1970’s to today, the gap between the well-paid and the poorly paid has continuously grown. “So what,” some people say. “Too bad,” some say. Some say that each person earns to his or her own level of ability. They say that those who are so highly paid must certainly deserve what they are getting, and surely in America that kind of high rate of compensation should be open to all Americans. Maybe so. 

On the other hand, you might look at our consumer-driven economy and see that if more and more people don’t have the money to consume, then a fundamental basis of our economy is under threat. When Henry Ford suddenly started paying his assembly line workers $5 per day, a fantastically huge raise for them, they could buy for themselves the cars that they were building. This relatively high rate of pay fueled the consumer economy. Henry Ford expanded the market for his product, the automobile, to the common man. Workers could buy cars, and then houses, then furniture. The furniture makers could then buy cars and better clothes and go to nice restaurants. The middle class got a huge boost, many historians and economists agree. The whole economy expanded. America became in the 20th century the economic powerhouse of the world and eventually a world leader.

The names on our WWII Honor Roll are of the men and women who went to fight and die to protect our democracy, a way of life they believed in. The Honor Roll is there to remind us of their sacrifice, their service, and it should remind us of what they believed in and finally what we all still believe in. They served, they worked, they labored for our ideals and our way of life. We remember them on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and every other day when we drive past the Sapping-Concord Memorial Park. We are reminded of the life they fought to protect and the life we continue to believe in.

I believe in that life and I appreciate the sacrifice of our service men and women. Many others besides me, and before me, felt the same way. That is why the WWII Honor Roll monument was put up in 1944 by the Concord Improvement Association in Sappington-Concord Memorial Park. That is why in 1995, SCHS rebuilt the wooden WWII Honor Roll using Missouri red granite, and why we still hold our annual Memorial Day ceremony up the road on the green at St Lucas at the beginning of summer. Please enjoy your Labor Day today and perhaps think on what it might mean to you. Think about what it means for our country.

One more thing about the veterans who have served our country. Many veterans retire from military service and go on to well-paid, fulfilling careers. On the other hand, some veterans retire from military service and find it a challenge to get work. Some veterans who can not get work become homeless. Some veterans suffer from PTSD and other medical problems. To counteract these difficulties, some governmental agencies and companies give preferential treatment to veterans when hiring so that veterans have a better chance of gaining employment. Veterans are generally regarded as capable and competent, traits that are necessary to serve in the military. Employers get the benefit of these competencies when they hire veterans.

One program related to history was set up specifically to provide work to veterans, the Veterans Curation Program (VCP), run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The program was created to process at-risk archaeological collections on government lands supervised by the Corps. It trains veterans to be curators and archivists protecting our nations history.

I invite you to please join us next Memorial Day in 2018 for our annual ceremony and community gathering. Join us next month on Thursday night, October 26 to hear the presentation on the navy and World War I, a war that shaped the world we have today. Surely it is the mission of our historical society to better know our past so that we can better understand what we are today and where we can take ourselves into the future.

Thank you all for visiting the SCHS web site today and for your support of our community.

Stephen Hanpeter, SCHS President

September 4, 2017