Americans’ work ethic, and especially Mainers’, is still as strong as ever. And as we celebrate the upcoming Labor Day weekend, it’s appropriate to take time to honor laborers of all kinds, never take them for granted and recognize they’re all essential.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Without the workers that manufacture, grow, transport, care for, clean, cook, teach, serve, sell, maintain, repair and a million other things private-sector laborers provide the populace, we’d have nothing. We’d be nothing. We couldn’t do anything or go anywhere. We’d starve, suffer and die. Everything would collapse. And the military and government would cease because there’d be no tax revenue.

We had a little taste of life without workers during the pandemic. It wasn’t pretty. To date, we’re still dealing with commodity and employee shortages and, as a result, some of the items we need or want simply aren’t available or cost more.

While economic and political news has been awful since March 2020, and there are many reasons to fear for the country’s future, there are many reasons to be hopeful. There are millions of people who, despite the government’s offer of cradle-to-grave welfare and unemployment benefits, still choose to get up early, brush their teeth, wash their face and join the throngs of commuters to begin yet another work day to keep the country and its citizens strong and supplied.

A look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics August report shows how workers are busier than ever. The second quarter of 2021 saw overall non-farm business sector labor productivity rise 2.3% as output increased 7.9% and hours worked increased 5.5%, compared with Q2 of 2020.

According to the bureau, the last four quarters have seen output increase 15.8%, and productivity numbers are now 1.2% above the level seen in the fourth quarter of 2019, which was before virus-related lockdowns impacted the economy. The reason we see so many hiring signs is because workers’ productivity levels are bursting at the seams and they need help to handle demand.

We hear politicians, especially the ones throwing money around in the form of Paycheck Protection Program business loans and enhanced unemployment benefits (which, thankfully, come to an end in early September here in Maine), take credit for helping Americans ride through the coronavirus storm. I rarely hear anyone, however, crediting the strong work ethic and pride of many Americans.

The recovery would not have been possible without laborers’ deep-down belief that, despite the fear they may have had regarding COVID-19, they had to keep working. I know many people who thought it their patriotic duty to keep working despite the government’s offer of unemployment because they didn’t want to see their company collapse or their customers go without.

America used to be world-renowned for its work ethic. In the Gilded Age, when industrialists and rugged manpower transformed the American landscape and created the greatest superpower known to man, people hardly took a day off, got paid little and rarely, if ever, took a vacation. They created an America we now take for granted where even our poorest live like kings and queens compared with residents in developing nations.

I wish we celebrated average laborers on Labor Day. We often just think of it as a day off from work and the unofficial end of summer. Some might think the holiday honors organized labor unions, which were actually instrumental in bringing about the holiday in the late 19th century, but the day was originally reserved to acknowledge average, working individuals.

I like how the U.S. Department of Labor’s webpage regarding the holiday’s history concludes the day’s purpose: “American labor has raised the nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known … It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

I also like how early labor activist Peter J. McGuire, who, in 1882, came up with the idea of a holiday to honor the American worker, credited the ordinary, average employee with creating America’s greatness. McGuire said he wanted to set aside a day for a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

We often hear that it’s our lawmakers or military members that make our country the beacon on a hill. They do their part, for sure. But really, it’s the workers that make America roll on and on and on. Despite our many challenges – and especially the government handouts we’ve seen in the last year that disincentivize work – thank goodness most Americans still have a proud work ethic.

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