Labor Day for All

Except the Workers

(Photo/Brett Sayles)

My father suffered a deadly stroke when he was just 48 years old and on his way to work one summer morning as a trucking dispatcher, a job he got after many years of driving trucks, and his body could no longer survive life on the road.

As was his routine, he had left our bungalow in Staten Island, N.Y., around 6 a.m. and was driving along Route 3 on the way to work in Hoboken when he was struck by a blinding headache. He stopped at a diner where he collapsed and an ambulance was called, taking him to the hospital, where he died a few hours later. It was the ignominious end of a life that was not filled with joy but rather with the daily drudgery of working and being trapped in a thankless, mind-numbing job in order to bring home a weekly paycheck.

The stroke was likely caused by his severe and longstanding kidney problems, which in turn were caused by the many miles he logged driving a truck over road bumps, potholes, and rough roads causing vibrations that are absorbed by the driver, with the constant stress on his body eventually centering on and damaging his kidneys.

He became a truck dispatcher after his body would no longer allow him to drive the 18-wheelers. To wind down after work, on Fridays, he relaxed by stopping at a local bar for a few beers and then went home, with a weekend respite from his stultifying job. I remember in his later years, his kidney troubles worsened but he continued working and didn’t do much more than work and fall asleep on the couch.

My father died because he was driving a truck for a non-union company and had little choice but to continue working despite an illness that got progressively worse. It’s no better today as unions have become weaker and weaker or non-existent.

It is unthinkable to me how anyone could go to a job day after day after day, willing to cash in eight hours or more of his life every day for a job that offered little satisfaction. I am one of the lucky ones, having had a rewarding career in journalism but there are so many others who, like my father, find themselves as little more than insignificant cogs in a wheel that grinds them up until they are discarded.

During the blistering heat of summer and the numbing cold of winter, you drive by the construction sites and see workers in their orange reflective vests, working with jackhammers that rattle the worker to the bone or you see them in trenches, shovels in hand, clearing the way for a new road. Pass by the bucolic farms and take note of the legions of people of color, men and women of all ages, who are bathed in their sweat as they stoop down to pick the beans or the tomatoes, work that is repeated a million times a day, surely taking a toll on the backs of workers so they can pick the produce that can later be sold to the people who live in expensive suburban homes.

Take note of the painter’s truck which is on the way to a job site where the painters in their white work suits will climb up 40-foot tall ladders to finish their work, a task that always carries the danger of falling to death or severe injury or the roofers who nimbly scamper along rooftops, ripping away the old tar paper, which very nearly bubbles from the searing summer heat. Or the sanitation workers, we used to call them the garbage men, whose responsibility is to pick up trash bins filled with the most odorous and potentially sickening detritus and then hoist it into the rear of the truck where it is compacted before opening up for the garbage from the next location and the workers are looked as not as employees but rather as extensions of their garbage trucks. Or the hospital and nursing home workers, usually people of color, who toil at two jobs, working 18 hours a day, because they have no other choice if they want to pay the rent and feed their children. Or the landscapers, usually men of color who have come to the U.S. from Central America and they feel fortunate to have any kind of job, whether it is driving the mowers or blowing the leaves or weed whacking the overgrown vegetation. Passers-by look right through the workers, seeing them as part of the inanimate landscape.

Or the truck drivers, like my father, who is pushed to the brink of exhaustion as they work for low pay and long hours, endangering not only themselves but the safety of the highways as in 2019, 5,005 people were killed and 159,000 injured in crashes involving large trucks. Drivers are often not covered by federal overtime laws so companies can require wildly long workweeks.

As for the standard 40-hour workweek, a 2014 Gallup poll showed it isn’t that way for half of full-time employees who reported working 41 hours or more per week; 18 percent said they worked more than 60. Only 8 percent said they worked 39 hours or less.

And nobody is looking out for the safety and health of these workers, certainly not the constantly diminishing unions or the federal government where the number of job safety inspectors has been cut drastically over past years.

So today we celebrate Labor Day although my father had little to celebrate in his time and neither do the painters, roofers, garbage collectors, landscapers, and the rest who must put up with all kinds of discomfort and abuse or risk losing the low-paying jobs that they rely on so desperately.

President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday in June 1894, as he faced a crisis of Pullman railway workers striking in Chicago. For many years, cities and towns across the nation held Labor Day parades to honor American workers and to support safer and fairer working conditions. Today, the day is marked by retail sales and barbecues and a final gasp of summer at the shore, with little mention of the workers for which the parades were first held.

Editor's note: Phil Garber has been a Journalist for 40 years and has won the journalist of the year award twice from the New Jersey Press Association. He may be reached at

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