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Life as Performance Art

Monday marked the end of Labor Day weekend and summer holiday season and, for many, when children went back to school.
When I was growing up. Father advised us, “Get to know the secretary, janitor, stay on their good sides and respect them. They’re as important as the principal, maybe more.”
This seemed counterintuitive, as only teachers and principals could say “This is going on your permanent record,” but he was right.
The old boy’s admonition is the message behind Labor Day: respect people of all occupations. The original union organizers rallied workers for safer conditions and better pay.  
Sinclair Lewis’s novel “The Jungle” and articles written by muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell spelled out why these things were important. America would have become a third-tier nation without a radical shift in salaries, safety and working conditions. We’d still be there without hard-won improvements.
Still, no amount of money will achieve what giving and receiving respect will do.
My first after school and summer job was with our local historical society working as assistant to the custodian, Mr. Hatch. The first day he took me down to the sub-basement, opened a storage room door, ordered, “Take everything out of there, then get the place clean enough to eat lunch of the floor. Dust and wipe down everything, then put it back in there. Do it right and it won’t have to be done for another year.”            
Mr. Hatch told me he had been a career Army man, enlisting in the Great Depression and serving as a master sergeant in the motor pool with a unit in England.  “If it wasn’t for us grease monkeys,” he said, “the generals would have been walking, same as the buck privates.”
When I went off to universities, I learned the custodians and cafeteria ladies were as important to all of us as the professors; the secretaries as much as the top administrators.
Every community has elected officials and administrators, but it’s public works crews that keep things functioning. You know, the folks who don’t balk at going into the sewers or cleaning up a sidewalk mess made by someone who had too many adult beverages.
Without men and women who empty the sidewalk trashcans, mow lawns or plow and clean streets, life would come to a standstill. Because of them, we have a nice place to live or visit.  
After the Fourth of July when I saw a couple DPW workers loading large bags of trash into the back of an already overloaded pickup truck. I told them that I appreciated how great they kept the city looking, especially on a busy weekend.
“You’re the only one this summer who has told us that,” a weary-looking woman said. “We’re either invisible to them or they complain about something.”
Respect is a big part of the movement that led to Labor Day. It doesn’t always happen. A friend who has spent the better part of three decades with an organization told me the other day not once did anyone ever say thank you or give a compliment. 
“Not so much as a Christmas card, happy birthday text or invitation for a cup of coffee, so I’m just about finished with them. I made them a priority but I don’t think I matter to them,” he said.
Perhaps this hurts most at home. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. When we neglect to say thank you, give a compliment or acknowledge their efforts it can be demoralizing.
To be sure, we must be intentional to express our gratitude for the routine work of domestic life, but if we neglect it everyone will be hurt. The worst of it is that children learn that this benign neglect is acceptable.
I suspect that is what’s behind the new trend of “quiet quitting” where people put less of themselves into their work, then one day simply leave. 
It happens when leadership does not cultivate a good relationship with the people who work with them.  Whether it is believing your employees are of lesser value or importance, or the result of blind neglect and thoughtlessness does not matter. It is toxic.
Labor Day is more than a celebration of past organized labor victories, a rallying point for today’s challenge and/or a long weekend and one last chance to enjoy summer. It is a day to be grateful for the work done by others and tell them thanks.

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