This Labor Day, 2014…

…I salute the old Chinese lady who started digging through my recycling a half hour after I put it out. All kinds of work goes on all around us all the time, and this is the day we set aside to bless it.

Last week I went to the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York, a museum dedicated to the slate mining industry that once dominated upper Washington County, near the Vermont border. This giant, three-panel painting from the WPA days once hung in the high school there.

 

After decades in the high school, it was moved to the town hall, and then to the museum. Of course, I love the WPA for the respect it paid to the workforce – and my friends in Philly have an archive of WPA art.

A detail from Men Working in Slate Quarry, oil on canvas, Martha Levy, 1939, Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, Slate Valley Museum Collection.

A detail from Men Working in Slate Quarry, oil on canvas, Martha Levy, 1939, Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, Slate Valley Museum Collection.

As much as I enjoyed spending a few minutes with this gorgeous example of WPA art, though, I got the dreadful feeling that we memorialize labor as if it started around 1850 and ended sometime last century. That’s why we’re in the crapper, politically and environmentally, we’ve lost track of the scorecard of who actually does stuff and what that work results in.

It’s kind of a consumers’ paradise, a surreal junk shop, and an environmental calamity all at once, this economy we’ve created together. Whatever the way forward, work and respect for work must be deep in our hearts when we try to make it better. We writers need to tell stories of work, with credible working class characters, that make some sense of the magic they/we perform.

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