How would you define the difference between “labor” and “work”? A cursory search on my part convinced me that the majority who attempt to explain why “labor” is not “work” and why “work” was not “labor” were in the words of the late Professor Edward Gershfield, a mentor of mine, “upgemixed“. With Labor Day next Monday, I share with you, three differences – based on everyday usage in our society – in the hope that it will add greater meaning to the first Monday in September.
Long before the advent of the internet, back in the day, when Americans literally pounded the pavement with the heels of their shoes. As they knocked on door after door and walked into store after store, they would ask either “do you have any work for me” or “are you looking to hire”? I am not aware of anyone ever asking: “do you have any labor for me”? Work is generated by others; labor comes from within. Unions protecting the proletariat from abuses of industry, opt for the term “worker”. ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) and UAW (United Auto Workers) are aptly named. While admittedly looking out for the wellbeing of the worker, their efforts focused on behemoth employers and the concessions they could extract from them. The term “day laborer” is admittedly very much part of our vocabulary, but I can’t help but believe that such a term came into being based on passages from the Talmud looking out for the well-being of the individual who deserved financial reward and/or benefits commensurate with an honest day’s work.
It has been 120 years since the first time clock was invented. I have no idea how factories of today operate, but in the America I was raised, it was totally inconceivable for factories and other places of employment to operate without workers “punching in” as they arrived at their jobs and “punching out” as they left. That way, the employer could be sure that the worker was putting in a full 40 hours before any paycheck was made out. Alternately, when overtime came into play, it was the worker who made sure that he/she was properly compensated for the extra time put in at the job. Not so, the laborer. A laborer – a true laborer is interested in creating and bringing to fruition. Unlike the worker, the laborer counts neither the minutes nor the hours. Unlike the worker, the laborer is his/her own critic and needs no boss or overseer examining the finished product to see if it meets certain standards. The worker puts in hours; the laborer puts in heart and soul. That is why it is perfectly acceptable to ask the former “do you do good work”? That is why it is a derogatory insult to ask a laborer (a term I use interchangeably with artisan) “do you do good labor”?
Interestingly enough, the phrase “Labor of Love” first appears a little over four centuries in the King James Version of the (Christian) Bible. The statement is entirely pareve, assuring us that
G-d is not about to overlook or ignore our “labor of love”. A labor of love is an altruistic act with no expectation of reward – financial or otherwise. A labor of love provides the giver satisfaction and even happiness knowing that time and effort is being given in the hope (but not expectation) that it will impact (even in the smallest way) on the life of the recipient. An ideal labor of love would be delivering a hand-crafted object or a home-baked pie to the door of the recipient replete with a lovely, unsigned note. Part of what makes a labor of love authentic is that while the recipient will know why the gift was sent, the recipient may never know by whom the gift was sent. Perhaps why we speak about a labor of love, but never a work of love.
To me, the term “workers” smacks of Lenin and Trotsky. To me “workers” produced a most pitiful economy and most pathetic society. What has made our country so special, is that in addition to earning a livelihood, so many Americans have made a life for themselves, by giving of themselves, by taking enormous pride in what they produce, and by realizing that there are times to roll up one’s sleeves and put one’s shoulder to the grindstone…just because.

A Meaningful Labor Day to One and All