Workers of the World, THANK YOU!

Today is May Day. It’s a holiday celebrated the world over as International Workers’ Day. In the U.S. we celebrate workers on our own Labor Day, in September, but in most of the rest of the world the first of May is considered “Labor Day.”

So stop what you’re doing for just a second please, and take a few minutes to think about all the things that we have to be thankful for today — everything that the modern economy and technological progress have made possible. In today’s world we are basically free of famine and plagues for the very first time in recorded human history. As recently as the late 1600’s, whenever crops failed it wasn’t uncommon for starvation to wipe out 20% or more of a nation’s entire population. But today, while people still go hungry in some parts of the world, almost no one dies of starvation. In fact, in 2010 obesity killed roughly 3 million people, while malnutrition and famine combined took just a million lives.

And we see the same kinds of progress in everyday comforts, from heating and lighting to indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and leather recliners. We see it in grocery stores where the fruit, vegetables and meats are always fresh, and in smartphones that can summon a car, track your diet, connect by video with your kids, or instantly tell you the name of the song you’re listening to.

It wasn’t government action that delivered all this to us, nor was it charitable activity, although of course both have had a role to play. No, this relative paradise (historically speaking) has been delivered by economic activity pure and simple, fueled by innovative thinking, the division of labor, and hard work. And we wouldn’t be enjoying this economic cornucopia at all except for the hourly workers who do all the things required to connect the dots and make it function.

Because no matter what you’ve been told about robots and automation and artificial intelligence, hourly workers still provide much of the connective tissue that keeps our highly developed economic system functional.

Hourly workers man the machines and equipment that build our structures, manufacture our products, and operate our energy systems; they help customers get what they want, when they want it; they render healthcare to everyone, and they attend personally to the needs of the aged and handicapped; they drive trucks and buses and taxis; they call on households to fix problems, install appliances and devices, and deliver things.

Hourly workers also clean floors, prepare meals, do laundry and care for young children so that others can pursue even more energetically the kinds of ideas and innovations that will make our economic system more productive still. And most of us who are fortunate enough to have successful professional careers should never forget that our success is due in large part to the fact that we have been liberated by the efforts of lesser paid but energetic and hard-working people — many of whom could probably be doing what we’re doing ourselves, if they had just had access to the same education, or upbringing, or inheritance.

Right now, in fact, as I write this essay, we have a cable guy here in the apartment we just moved into. Glen is working on a particularly difficult problem, because no one seems to be able to tell him where the “splitter” in our cable is — somewhere behind a wall or under a floor, certainly, but where? Until he finds the splitter we won’t get television in our living room, so he’s doing his level best to help, taking apart outlets, fishing for connections, and searching out any hidden panels — doing the things I can’t do myself, because I don’t know what to do and wouldn’t know how to do it if you told me.

By the way, Glen is also serving as a very capable ambassador to the customers of his employer, Comcast. He’s keeping me informed as he goes along, being honest with what he knows and doesn’t know, and taking full responsibility for solving my problem, just the way his company should. Glen is Comcast’s face to every customer he deals with, in every household he enters.

So I’m definitely thankful for Glen, but also for Rick, the moving van driver who got our furniture and possessions safely across the country without incident, and for Janice, who unboxed a lot of our things and then cut the cardboard up to take it down to recycling, and for Alex, who spent most of a day measuring spaces and hanging our pictures.

Today is May Day. Honor the hourly worker!


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