It’s fitting that we marked the long Labor Day weekend by honoring the seasonal and seasonally exhausting work of hosting 2018’s Island visitors. In last week’s Times, Brittany Bowker reported on the serious fatigue factor shadowing businesses and workers all across the Island as this height of the frenzied 2018 summer season finally begins to ebb into a more manageable early fall. And not a moment too soon: Our economy and thousands of individual livelihoods turn on our success in accommodating visitors, and while valiantly holding on, it’s fair to say we’re running on fumes.
At the front lines are the workers staffing Island businesses. In particularly short supply as a result of our national policy of solving international trade disparities on the backs of inn, hotel, and restaurant owners, and working long hours to make up the difference as best they can, hospitality staff run out of steam facing long days and high expectations. Some or many leave earlier than planned. Businessman J.B. Blau waxed philosophically (and diplomatically), “There’s some creative reasons why people have to leave early. It’s a bad month to be a grandmother.” Early departures in turn create still more pressure on remaining staff and, of course, on Island business owners and managers to deliver the visitor experience they know they owe their customers. It could be worse. As Blau says, “It’s amazing to think about places like New York City and Paris, where it’s like August 12 months a year.”
Blau is right. Labor on the rock has to be seen in an Island context — we work like crazy but we can see the end of it, when we can get to the beach or out on a boat, or maybe just sit and read a book on a crisp afternoon. Seen this way, Labor Day the holiday actually makes sense. We can see and feel it in personal and direct terms. But when we think about Labor Day in most other places in America, it’s not clear what or whom we’re celebrating.
Among all our national holidays of diffuse and uncertain message, there should be a special place of honor for the drift of purpose, to coin a phrase, of Labor Day. After more than a century in which to find its niche, Labor Day seems an artifact of interest groups with clout long since eclipsed, for good reasons and bad. We get the “honor work” part, but surely there should be more substance beyond a three-day weekend to give shape to the holiday.
Since the sponsor of our national holidays is the federal government, you might think that the U.S. Department of Labor’s official website would provide some guidance. Well, here it is, seemingly straight out of the 1950s:
“The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression. Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics, and government officials are given wide coverage in newspapers, radio, and television.
The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known, and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
You might take from this heroic homage that the Labor Department imagines an American economy still reflecting the post–World War II era when a shortage of labor, booming demand, and broadly shared economic growth characterized the workers’ landscape in America. Labor with a capital L deserved and was accorded full partnership. You might also have reasonably imagined that our government and politicians, and especially the administration’s Department of Labor, have been there for us, and committed to having our backs. Instead, we are in an era of public retreat from meeting the needs of workers, a rout actually, making tributes to “the creator of so much of the nation’s strength — the American worker” ring decidedly hollow.
We like Labor Day here on the Vineyard, not least because “the season” is arguably our greatest shared Islander experience (just as is its evil twin, March, but that’s another story). We don’t need to justify our holiday with hollow and superficial exaltations of working men and women. Let’s just agree among ourselves and declare: We’re grateful for all our visitors do for us, but we’ve all worked and shared and smiled about as much as we can. We just need a three-day holiday to punctuate the pivot from the summer crush to returns to school and a more normal (OK, Vineyard normal) work/life balance. We’ll be back in full force next Memorial Day, visa fiascos and sickly grandmothers notwithstanding.