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Lange:Thoughts On Labor Day

09/05/11 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) After over 50 years as a working man, commentator Willem Lange has some thoughts about the celebration of labor's importance in our society.

(LANGE) Many years ago, when I was teaching school, I regretted that, of the two sections of English I taught, the kids in the so-called slow section were scheduled to fit in with the other classes they took - secretarial skills, typing, metalworking shop, and "vocational arts." There were various euphemisms describing that section, but in the teachers' room they were "the slow class."

I always thought it a shame that the kids who'd be working on our cars, fixing our plumbing, installing our electrical wiring, and growing our food were de facto denied access to what many of us call the finer things in life. I sometimes heard it said they weren't interested in such things; but you should have seen two of them, playing Brutus and Cassius, plotting Caesar's assassination, or their tears as we read the last scene of Cyrano , or their delight in the metaphors and rhythms of Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman." Yet they were relegated by the guidance counselor to typing other people's words and unstopping other people's toilets. I was delighted to find, at a twenty-fifth reunion, about half of them had broken that mold and earned graduate degrees.

For millennia we've divided our societies into those who have and those who do. It's a useful exercise, especially today , to Google Edwin Markham's remarks about his famous, but in its day controversial poem "The Man with the Hoe," and then look for the Millet painting of the same name that inspired it. All of us who live well up on the pyramid of civilization could not be there but for those beneath us who built and still support it.

It's fashionable among conservatives to deplore immigrant workers, some undocumented, who are "stealing American jobs." The uncomfortable truth is, most Americans won't do those jobs anymore for the little they pay. Vermont's struggling dairy industry, for example, would be in worse shape but for immigrant workers.

I never joined a teachers' union because it rewarded seniority and opposed merit pay. I did join the laborer's union; if I hadn't, the union would have shut down the job. The creation of unions was essential because of blatant exploitation by employers. Union-busters from John D. Rockefeller to Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have been praised and demonized for battling union labor's demands.

Labor Day is now experienced as a holiday weekend and the official end of summer. But we might take a look, on what ought to be a weekend of reflection upon all the things that surround us - our houses, cars, appliances; the computers on our desks or laps - and remember that people, most of them working for less than we do, built and keep them going. Then we should give them a heartfelt thank-you for what they do.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I must return to my - labors.

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