Labor Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. As a little kid, I loved it simply because it was a day off of school just after summer vacation, and because it meant the last of summer cookouts in our backyard. As a young man, it was a day of picnics with my union brothers and sisters in Local 59 in NYC filled with a lot of laughs. And as an ‘older’ man now, it is a time to reflect on what really matters to me and my family.
I grew up on the West Side…of Manhattan, the son of an immigrant and janitor. My parents provided a household full of rich experiences, but were working poor. My father had a good job as the building superintendent (the janitor), but when he fell ill we were fortunate to have the help of food stamps to get by. My first job (for 8 years) was working for my father sweeping the front of the building & lobby daily, mopping the 9 story building every Saturday morning, and putting the trash bags from the garbage cans onto the street for the 55 unit building three nights/week. We were fortunate in that we had the entire ground floor of the apartment complex (the benefit of being the super), which meant a backyard. Labor Day was always a day of cookouts in that backyard, but also of preparing the boiler room for the winter months to come (that boiler room also doubled as a workout room for me and my brother with all the distinct smells of a boiler room :).
Although my parents were working poor, I count myself as fortunate to have been given opportunities. Among them was the opportunity to join the Laborers International Union (Local 59). It was the experience in Local 59 that keeps me grounded to this day, an experience on which I always reflect on Labor Day. It is only years later that I realize what I learned from having that opportunity:
- The myth of someone pulling themselves up by the bootstraps is just that. It’s in the mythology of our country that people are ‘self-made’. But let’s face facts: that’s never the case. We all have help from others along the way - mentors, angels, rabbis whatever we call them- and we need to get over this idea that anyone makes it ‘on their own’. In my case, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to have a good union job for many years, which enabled me to earn enough to go to college. And to have a union to fight for safe working conditions and a living wage. Of course I worked hard, but I didn’t accomplish that all by myself - that’s the truth.
- Hardwork is the currency that earns respect once that opportunity comes along. I worked among a mini-United Nations not only in Local 59, but among the other trades. My union brothers and sisters were from Italy, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Bosnia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, etc. The common language (and banter) was hardwork. Our foreman of many years (Leno Impedulia) was behind a lot of it. No one wanted to be called out as being “on strike” by Leno (meaning you’re lazy). The currency of pulling one’s own weight earned respect.
- ‘Busting each other’s chops’ (a different expression was used) - keeps it real. I learned quickly when I first got on the job not to take myself too seriously when Leno asked me to go up to another floor and get a bucket of steam. He handed me the bucket and, after walking about 12 feet away, I stopped and said ‘wait….’. The daily banter was a reminder that life is too short and busting each other’s chops is a sign of friendship and affection. And the ‘suits’ just wouldn’t get it.
So on this Labor Day, I am reminded of what matters and what keeps me grounded. What matters is most importantly to honor the hard work of the men and women in the trades who have built this country with their hands. What matters is recognizing that we never ‘make it all on our own’, but rather all are lifted up by angels with the opportunity to achieve, and we need to take it from there. And what matters at the end of the day is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I for one am still trying to figure out how to get that bucket of steam!