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No relaxing on Labor Day
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"Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country," said Samuel Gompers, the founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. "Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."

As we celebrate our national Labor Day holiday this first Monday in September, the United States Department of Labor reminds us that we are paying appropriate tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

The official government's statement is that "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."

Despite mild arguments as to who actually started the movement culminating as the annual Labor Day celebration, the nation has celebrated this national holiday since 1894.

But up until the year 1999, I'd never really given a serious moment's thought as to who actually gets to celebrate the national Labor Day holiday.

That's because up until that year, when our nation celebrated it for the 105th time, I'd always had Labor Day off in some form or fashion. From the day of my birth, which fell about smack dab halfway through the 20th century, until I was graduated from college, I was always able to gather with family or friends on Labor Day, as on most every other holiday.

And even afterwards, as a social studies teacher in the public schools of Georgia, I was always free to celebrate Labor Day.

I never even gave it a thought. Labor Day celebrates labor. Laborers have a day off. I simply took it for granted that everyone in the wide world lived in the same universe I inhabited.

But in August of 1999 I started a second full time job with an airline, at night following the end of my teaching day, and my wife began a part-time job in addition to her full time teaching job. We'd made a commitment to our children to send them to any college they wished to attend, and the first of three out-of-state tuitions and attendant expenses was in full swing.

Well, my first brush with the fact that Labor Day pretty much is a holiday for management, but a regular work day for laborers, came in September of 1999. I remember being stunned at the revelation that I was scheduled to work at the airport on a national holiday, with no concern whatsoever for my family's long tradition of gathering at the in-law's Lake Jackson home for a day of fun on the water to officially mark the end of summer.

For it was, you see, that a great, great man and family friend - the late John Dobbs - used to host a fish fry every Labor Day at his cabin next door to my wife's parents' house on Birch Road. The guest list included a virtual "who's who" from old Atlanta and East Atlanta society, and included former University of Georgia football coach Johnny Griffith.

John's son, Bubba, was in charge of producing hush puppies, while my mama-in-law, Frances Drummond, expertly fried the catfish. Everybody else brought the fixin's and desserts, and the fellowship and fun was the stuff for which life is worth living.

It was inconceivable to me that I might miss that gathering.

But, alas, no matter how I lobbied my managers, no matter how patiently I explained that I'd only joined the airline in August and had plans etched in stone for Labor Day for months, I had to report for the night shift on Labor Day, 1999.

So, despite having to leave the food and fun early that day, I dutifully showed up for work at Hartsfield International, only to find that the same managers who insisted that I be there were, themselves, enjoying the day off. So were their managers, and upper management, and senior management.

This August would have marked my eighth anniversary with that airline; but on June 1 of this year, along with roughly 1,200 other folks, upper management rolled me into employment with a major Atlanta-based airline emerging from bankruptcy. In one fell swoop of someone's pen, I lost my seniority and started over with an employment date of June 1, 2007.

Folks who work for companies governed by seniority know all too well what that means. For the unfamiliar, it means I am at the absolute bottom of the barrel bidding for shift lines of time. When the next shift bid rolls around, I'm liable to end up with my "weekend" being Tuesday and Wednesday.

Seniority governs vacation bids, as well. I may never be granted another vacation at the time I wish to take it. And, seniority governs who gets to ride for free in an empty seat on an airplane going to San Francisco, or Honolulu, or London, or to see one of my children. If there's one empty seat on a plane, and a person hired one day before me is standing by for that seat along with me, the other person flies and I drive on back home.

And seniority governs the granting of holiday requests. Knowing this, early this summer I applied for my Labor Day holiday; due to my almost non-existent seniority, I didn't get it. But I was graciously approved to be off the Sunday before Labor Day, however. And so, as I'm currently off on Fridays and Saturdays, our family plans to enjoy as much of a traditional Labor Day holiday long weekend as possible. But I'll be parking planes at Hartsfield Monday night.

And so it is that I got to thinking again about Labor Day and how it is that the common, everyday worker bee guy most likely will find himself right there on the job on the day reserved to honor his labor.

Folks headed to the lake, for instance, are doubtless going to stop and purchase refreshments for themselves, bait for the fishing, gas for the boat and sundries for the kids.

Well, they can't do that unless somebody is working on Labor Day, can they?

Citizens trapped by contemporary technology will undoubtedly want to check email, watch the news, make a few landline or cell phone calls, or perhaps get the jump on the work week sales calls or meetings and fly somewhere. Maybe they'll just settle for taking the family out for a meal at a nice restaurant.

Somebody will be working to make all of that possible. How ironic is it that, on the very day set aside to honor the everyday worker, the everyday worker has to be at work?

That is just plain wrong.

But since the folks who are in power and make the rules are not worker bees who have to make things go, it isn't likely to change any time soon, is it? Looking at the glass as half-full for a moment, I realize that even the poorest of the poor here in America have more than so very many people in other parts of the world.

I recognize the fact that the American people enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, and that the economic engine of free enterprise built upon the shoulders of the common laborer has furnished even those of modest means with the ability to purchase cell phones, iPods, high-definition-capable plasma televisions, state-of-the-art laptop computers, new cars, nice houses, and to take vacations virtually anywhere on the planet.

In similar fashion, and aware of countless Horatio Alger types who have raised themselves up by their own bootstraps, I'm most appreciative that in this country it is possible for anyone to succeed, for where there's a will there's a way.

But I suspect that old Samuel Gompers would agree with me that it's ironic indeed that on Labor Day, the day which differs "in every essential way from the holidays of the year in any other country" and a day on which the Federal Government "pays tribute... to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership - the American worker," the rank-and-file guy is most likely hard at it on his or her daily job.

Proof, perhaps, that there is, indeed, no rest for the weary.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.