As Workplace Changes,
New Dreams Emerge


This column ran in the Courant September 2, 1999
and appears here with the gracious permission of its editors.
"Now Work was made for two things —
that was a fool and a mule."

— Pettie Wheatstraw
from "Confidence Man"

When Labor Day approaches, I sometimes think about my parents. They were born with their shoulders to the wheel and their noses pressed hard against the grindstone.

They were workers, union people, assembly lines and lunch pails, typing pools and greasy-spoon hot dogs. They worked as hard as they could for as long as they could. They gave out under the strain of their lives and dropped in the dust. Neither lived to be 60 years old.

Because of my parents' hard work, I walk along a less rocky path, which was their dream.

My parents were walkers. When I was a boy in Philadelphia, I'd go on long walks with one and then the other.

When the three of us walked together, the trips were always short and full of purpose, like my parents' lives.

But when I walked with just one of my parents, the trips sometimes became grand explorations of the city and life.

Sometimes, they'd talk about their lives as workers, how my mother earned enough money to buy her senior class ring and yearbook washing dishes on Fountain Street, how my dad worked as a teenage elevator boy in a grand complex that had "Strawbridges" living there.

My mother, the romantic, would sometimes talk about how she met my dad when he picked her and others up to take them to the good government jobs that so many black families used to climb out of poverty.

"He was a good and safe driver," she'd say of my dad.

A child of the Depression, my mother sought the practicality of a solid and sober mate, a man who followed the rules of the road.

During my walks with my father, he liked to point out the men, broken by the work they had done and the lives they had lived, the men who walked with limps, the men who clutched cheap wine bottles with burned hands or mangled fingers.

"They used those men like they were mules" my dad would say of the bosses of his time."

My dad would point out those men as if to say, "Don't be like them, don't be like me." He wanted me to grow up to use my mind rather than my hands in work. I have, which was my dad's dream.

Over time, the world of work changed. Machines or foreign laborers do many of the jobs men of my father's time did.

The bosses have changed, too. They no longer use men and women as if they were mules. Rather, too many behave as if their subordinates are pistons or microchips, so easy to use and discard.

Today's workers bear internal scars from the compromises they've made on the job, the compromises that have sliced bits and pieces of their souls the way meat cutters claimed the fingers of workers from another time.

As in the past, today's American workers perform with great pride and skill. Their productivity and ingenuity help fire the nation's economic engine.

These are flush times in America, especially for the bosses and the people who boss them.

These are uncertain times for American workers. Despite strong corporate profits and lavish compensation packages for CEOs, layoffs and downsizing still loom.

Still, in spite of it all, the workers persevere and triumph. They deserve so much more than a day of backyard barbecues, a few hollow speeches and parades.

One day our society will grow wise enough to truly respect and celebrate its workers.

I want to live long enough to see it. It is my dream.

After all, I have lived long enough to see men and women go from mules to microchips in the cold eyes of the bosses.

Jeff RiversJEFF RIVERS, a Denzel Washington lookalike and Smokey Robinson soundalike — at least in his mind — joined The Courant in 1989. His e-mail address is