Monday, September 05, 2011

Just Another Labor Day?

United States or Soviet?Image by Jo Peattie via Flickr
Although for most of us it's just another day off or an extended weekend, Labor Day is an excellent time to reflect on those men and women (and children!) who came before us, helped build this country, and whose lives continue to reverberate in this new century.

Think about it in today's context. Even though today's economy is said to be in recovery, according to CBS News, "the president will be in Detroit this Labor Day. Unemployment there is about 14% - that's five points above the national average." Furthermore, "[u]nemployment for African Americans is the highest it has been in 27 years."

Perhaps now, more than ever, it would be instructive to closely examine the nature of work in the USA. Toward that end, curators at The National Archives have designed some wonderful virtual exhibitions that pay tribute to American laborers and many others. From their website:
Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.
Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

My own contribution was to download a video from their site, and make it into something new and (hopefully) more compelling. Although the video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Thievery Corporation, who remixed a song from the Doors, a band popular many years ago. See the parallels?

Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't be afraid to respond to media that usually is intended to be one-way. The internet and computer technology has made it possible for anyone to become a creator and to "talk back" to media. "Work" such as this can be very fulfilling and meaningful. Hopefully, this small "labor of love" will encourage you to think about today as more than "Just Another Labor Day".

Lastly, since we are starting our course with a "Stories and Histories" theme, what narrative do you see being weaved through this video?


Betsyj. said...

When reading Just Another Labor Day? I could not help but be puzzled at first by the meaning behind the “secret” message. But after watching the video multiple times (with and without the music), looking up the lyrics to “Strange Days” and taking a closer look at the National Archives website, it hit me: all media has a underlying meaning. But what makes today’s age so fascinating is that media is no longer static, technology now allows anyone to voice a fresh perspective or new insight. Whether that is through adding a new soundtrack (as Mr. Bolos did), titles, special effects or audio, the mediums are endless. What will remain a challenge is separating those various layers and observing how each medium creates a narrative of its own.

So coming back to the original question, I believe two narratives are woven through this video. One: The National Archives. I believe the National Archives created this montage to show how for the majority of the 20th century, the job market was dominated by manual labor. The video was not intended to make the audience feel guilty, just aware that back then the workforce was a much more labor-intensive, methodical and dangerous place. By adding a new soundtrack, Mr. Bolos brings a fresh narrative to the video. The song sheds light on how today, “strange days have found us” because America is no longer dominated by the labor workforce. Cities such as Detroit--that once flourished as an industrial capital--are now in a depressed state as the unemployment rate continues to rise.

PaddyD. said...

I would have to agree with the above post. It is very interesting to look at how labor has changed throughout the last 100 years. Certain jobs, like steel mining and auto manufacturing, have been outsourced to places like Asia where the labor is much cheaper and have effectively decimated the economies of towns like Detroit, Michigan and Gary, Indiana.

In response to the question, I think that there are many narratives that are shown throughout the course of the video. One that I found interesting was the story of how America itself changed over time as new technologies and inventions lead the the need for newer, never before seen jobs. As the video got to the years closer to the 21st century (although it did not go in order), it was obvious how much had changed in the country itself in just 60 or so years.

Matt R. said...

I agree with Betsy on the point that the montage tried to show how different labor was in the days of yore compared to now. Many more Americans in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s worked with their hands or toiled in a gritty, often hostile environment. I remember studying the change in job types in the U.S. in my geography class last year and the primary and secondary sectors of jobs include taking materials out of the earth and making them usable in society respectively. During the time periods that the video focused on, many more Americans had primary or secondary sector jobs. Even as recent as the 1980s, there were many more American laborers in the manufacturing industry than there are today. In an article titled “Technology Explains Drop in Manufacturing Jobs” by James Sherk on the Heritage Foundation website, a graph explains how from 1987 until 2010, the number of U.S. manufacturing employees dropped from 17.5 million to 11.7 million. And that’s only from the last 23 years! Another graph show how much safer manufacturing jobs have become which also outlines the changing tides of the American labor force. The abstract for the articles says, “Technological improvements, not international trade, are reducing U.S. manufacturing employment by automating many rote tasks,” and a graph on the website shows a rise in use of capital (machinery) in the manufacturing workplace. The American dream as we generically described it in class involves working hard with a little luck. Now in today’s “Strange Days” as The Doors put it, the definition of hard labor is drastically shifting from sweat on your brow with no knowledge of what a computer is to being able to work right alongside technology. As Detroit, a city once looked on as the American dream in progress with hard-workers making a decent living over the automobile conveyer belts, slips further into unemployment, we need to as Jim Morrison of The Doors sang in “Strange Days”, “find a new town.” Or perhaps, just a new types of jobs other than manufacturing for people.

Matt R. said...

By the way, here is the American Heritage Foundation Article website:

Joe F. said...

I agree with what has been written, and i think the montage is very interesting. I just have a request; can you post a link to the lyrics for the song? I can't really understand what they're saying, so i'm not sure what message you're trying to convey by choosing this specific song.

Hayley B said...

I think that aside from the different jobs prevalent in America today, there is also something to be said for the different way in which we do the same jobs. Construction work is still very much physical labor, but the way in which it is done has changed drastically - and not just because of technology. While watching the video I couldn't help but wonder at the ability of the workers at the dam to just grab onto ropes and swing about the structure, or ride a large horizontal metal thing down like an elevator. Nowadays, safety regulations would (at least I would hope) forbid this sort of activity. And yet nobody seems particularly frightened by what they are doing, despite a total lack of safety nets or harnesses and other things we would assume to be around people working that high up.

Additionally, in the video you rarely see men and women working together. There are both men working and women working in the video, but they are shown in different jobs, and never together. Today this would be unusual in most fields of work, though it can still be seen in fields like construction or nursing.

So even in jobs that have continued to exist, vast differences can be seen between the past and present, in the integration of men and women and the increased safety regulation.

Hayley B said...

This is the song:

TimP. said...

I just thought I'd put a little history into the conversation, and maybe give some perspective on what we have all been saying about the holiday.
Labor Day, the holiday, was signed during and passed by Grove Cleveland in order to pacify the unions have some continued strikes. It wasn't enacted as a day to reflect on previous hard labors done. Essentially, it began a holiday in the way that most holidays have ended up, just another day off. Meanwhile, on Veteran's day, I don't see a whole lot of attendance at the cemetery, or very much meaning behind the scarcely appreciated parades, and this is a holiday with a lot of meaning and reason behind having it. Just thought I'd share that.

Kathleen F. said...

I think that Betsy's comment about how all media has underlying meaning is so true. This video takes advantage of visual aid to portray images of the past and Mr. Bolos' song adds a new interpretation to the video entirely. Any other song would bring new colors to the piece. If the information came in a picture book format or even in written form, the way the audience is supposed to interpret and digest the information would change.

In terms of the video, the video-song combination make the work seem utopia-esque. The working men are bustling about, doing the jobs, tinkering on the machinery, as if there wasn't a care in the world. In my opinion, the "strange days" mentioned in the lyrics refer to the present time, when, for example, the fear of being sued and workers rights have completely changed the freedom (as seen in the rope swinging segments) and seemingly cheery task of going to work in the industrial yards every day. If only, the video laments, we could return to the good old days with your average joe hammering some nails rather than the soul-erasing desk jobs we have now.

By contrast, imagine the video set to a more depressing song. The message would be quite polar-opposite, showing our progress from the terrible days of industrial danger.

If the message behind the images is so easily changed, it begs the question of which song portrays the more accurate message?

DanielB. said...

I'd have to disagree with some of the people in this post- The demand for products is higher than it has ever been; this is a very material world we live in, and I don't think that the decrease in jobs involving physical labor in america is at all attributable to the computer's explosion in popularity. I believe that the reason for this drastic reduction is entirely the product of economic feasibility for the manufacturing companies who are tired of dealing with the union. Since the formation of the union, the costs for a company to employ a worker have increased immensely because the workers' union has enormous leverage over the companies who employ them. Why would a company want to base themselves in America when they could have some 10 year olds make it in some foreign country, and then import it into the USA? The price of the labor IN ADDITION to the tariffs is still less than a TENTH of what it would cost to have the union do it. Health care benefits and constant protests demanding higher wages only serve to widen the gap between the prices. This lack of employment has been a contributing factor in the recession in which we live today. The price of living is only increasing, which necessitates a higher pay grade, which is what the unions are demanding. The more the unions demand, the more companies will move away, so we are really caught in a vicious circle, all propelled by the economy- and that's what I think is really forcing these cities such as Detroit and Flint to basically shut down.

S. Bolos said...

@Kathleen: yes, how utterly utopian. It's fascinating how Americans idealize those decades of factory dominance.

@Daniel: I'll just add a couple of short responses to your comment (which might be turned into its own blog post!)
1) Do you believe you are being fair to the unions? You make it seem like all they want are higher wages and nothing else. Is that historically accurate?
2) What do you think of the morality of American companies who "have some 10 year olds make it in some foreign country"?