Moats: Labor Today

Sep 3, 2018

Vermont’s labor history includes the farm work that took place in virtually every town — the farm families who labored every day to till rocky fields, bring in the crops and tend to their animals.

There were also the many workers in the state’s granite and marble quarries who became Vermont’s best organized labor activists.

I was thinking of this history after viewing a mural at the Metropolitan Museum in New York painted by American artist Thomas Hart Benton in 1930 and ’31.

The mural is called America Today, and it shows — factory workers, construction workers and farmers, as well as subway passengers, dance hall girls, a street corner evangelist and many other regular people.

What comes across is the worker as heroic, muscular, full of vitality, and it got me to wondering how an artist might depict America today. We still have our steel workers and farmers, but their number is smaller and their roles have diminished.

They’ve been replaced by people on telephones, or people at computers. The counter man slinging hash at an old-fashioned diner has been replaced by a platoon of young workers behind the counter of a fast-food franchise.

People still head off for the fishing boats of Alaska or the lobster boats of Maine. They establish new farms in the hills and valleys of Vermont.

But if there’s a malaise today, I’d say it has to do in part with the way that work has been robbed of its dignity. Even truck drivers, once the free spirits of the open road, have had to knuckle under to the demands of big companies.

And yet it still happens — dignity and graciousness still pop up in unexpected places. It might be someone on a help desk, working to fix your computer, or someone on the phone trying hard to straighten out your plane reservation, or a nurse’s aide or a grocery checkout clerk.

The human spirit still breaks through even in the circumstances of today, as it did in the old days. And of course, we know the old days were no picnic.

If those steel workers and farmers were heroic, it was because of what they put up with, and the dignity they maintained in spite of it. The same is true today.