Monday, September 3, 2012

Submerged

Brigitte flagged for me yesterday Glenn Haege’s piece in  the Detroit News. Haege writes a column for the paper (“The Handyman”), and this was his finger pointing at Labor Day today. His approach was novel: he listed eight unions all concerned with the building trades, four of which contributed concretely to the installation of a central air system in this house in July: Plumbing and Pipefitting, Electrical Workers, the Sheet Metal Workers International, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. The list brought to Brigitte’s mind several members of the “grandchild” cohort in our extended family, a sufficient number so that we could locate one in eight of the nine Haege listed. One was left out, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers.

The article also brought other old memories to the surface—not least what would strike most as the arcane naming conventions used by the Department of Labor to name the crafts—vast lists of which we regularly labor on at our company in publishing a title called Salaries and Wages. Back further still lay my “awakening” to the reality of the labor movement which came in college. I thank the Jesuits for making mandatory a course on the history of labor in my day (1950s); maybe such a course is still required. Finally, in a chapter on a book about ordinary life in Roman times, I read with great amusement a long, long list of “associations”—of craftsmen and trades, principally. The list was such as to make you raise your eyebrows twice, first because there were so many and so diverse—and no thick books on Caesar or Nero or Caligula (or even Augustus) ever mention them—and second because Brigitte then was editor-in-chief of Gale’s flagship reference book, Encyclopedia of Associations, the very book that started Gale Research.

Labor is—submerged. So, I discovered, are my reference books on it. I could find neither my college text nor yet the book on the Roman’s everyday life. What I discovered is that as knowledge vaporizes, dust collects—and that my highly diversified deposits of books need lots and lots of labor to organize again.

Quite instructive, actually. Labor Day goes back to 1882—celebrated that year in New York City. We owe to the labor movement the relatively civilized decades of the second half of the twentieth century. And alongside the slowly but steadily dropping curves of labor union membership, median income in the United States has been falling right alongside. And there is more, much more, that could be said in addition. Once a year, briefly, with a bit of sentiment—not enough. If we don’t mind our knitting, soon all the knitting will be done by slaves.

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