October 16, 2017
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The Rise of Working America

"Labor comes before capital and deserves the higher consideration", wrote Abraham Lincoln.  And yet for all the esteem we have for the 16th president of the United States, do we share his view when it comes to money and labor?

Do we privately-- and as a society-- consider work higher than money itself?  If we believe work-- our own, the employment of others, and the rules concerning work--  should be regarded with "higher consideration" than money, which is what Lincoln wrote, how do we craft a society like this?

What might have led Lincoln to believe labor deserves "higher consideration" than money itself?  Have we been led into a set of beliefs in which money is regarded the soul of our system rather than labor which "comes before" money?

Perhaps This Reader Magazine will begin to answer some of these questions. Looking back at the faces of American workers in the past and reading about reforms over 200 years what struck me was the impossibility of doing justice to the story of America at work within the confines of the time and space we have here.

In an image taken at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of Americans are marching to demand an end to 12-hour work days, with faces that are excited and expectant, some noticeably afraid.
How many marches like this did it take to end child labor, establish the 8-hour work week, the weekend, and other benefits, I wondered.

Interestingly, the question of whether it makes sense for any of us to get involved in any cause that speaks to our sense of right and wrong  is revealed in the images that remain of these marches.  Some who participated in the march may have spent decades in a factory or office but the only image we have of them and entered into historical record was that hour they were outside it, demanding something better for themselves, exercising their Constitutional right to assemble.

It is a complex story by its nature: work within the greatest, most powerful nation on earth. In the early 1970s, hoping to capture the story, Studs Terkel made dozens of audio interviews with Americans from all work backgrounds. The resulting book, which I read as a 20-year old, was not how Norman Rockwell portrayed America, but it captured reality and began with these four sentences:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence--to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches and fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all) about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

According to some of the voices in this Reader, things may get worse.  In 1991, Robert Reich, who later became Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, made several predictions about America's workforce, all of which are true today.  In 2015, he predicts more financial pressure on those already being squeezed as well as new pressure, as a result of technological advancements, in sectors that have traditionally been insulated-- education and health.  However, he also says this is not our fate-- we can make choices together so that instead of this future we witness together the rise of working America.

It is likely-- given the exceptional nature of America-- to achieve a better outcome than what's expected of us.  But of course it will require more than we've given thus far.

It will require an openness to reexamine the story  and place of work in America. We must learn who are the people-- perhaps not in the history books-- who have championed working Americans?  We must learn why Lincoln-- a man likely to be the most famous American ever-- urged others to see labor deserving "higher consideration" than money?

In the end, creating this future and being here for the rise of working America will come from being curious enough to discover the truth about the story and place of work in America, courageous enough to change our minds, and smart enough to find ourselves in the march.