The ‘7 to 3,’ the ‘3 to 11,’ the ‘11 to 7'!
September 4, 2009
There are some things we all learn to appreciate that we didn’t appreciate much when they were happening.
In the summer of 1968, when I was 18 years old, I had one of those times. I was working in the labor gang at Armco Steel in my hometown of Ambridge. Some days, I was shoveling sludge out of pits, the sludge sometimes as high as my chest. Other days, I was assigned to operating a “jackhammer,” breaking up the floor of a blast furnace while the steel mill was “down” so another floor could be installed. I never thought I could be so hot. I never thought I could be so dirty. I never thought I could be so tired.
I was a studious kind of kid, and hard, manual labor was something I knew people did for a living. But I never truly experienced it myself until that summer job.
Over time, I came to appreciate what I didn’t at first appreciate day in and day out. I thought I knew what hard work was, but I really didn’t know what hard work was until I climbed into my work clothes and pushed that sludge around, things that my maternal grandfather, my Dzedo, did for years at another mill in town, the American Bridge Co.
And in that summer of ’68, I became ever so grateful to my supervisors at Armco, Mr. Sabota and Mr. Aquino, for all that they taught me about work. Whether I worked the “7 to 3” or the “3 to 11” or the “11 to 7” shifts that summer, I learned lots!
A fundamental lesson
Every day when I was growing up in Ambridge, I saw people coming and going to the mills. I saw husbands working hard to put food on the table; I saw women working hard to raise their children and keep a good home over their heads. Everywhere I looked in Ambridge, I saw people of dignity, people who never gave a second thought to how hard the work was that made up so much of their lives. It was what women and men did in their world, and they never thought about it in any other way.
That was the fundamental lesson I took from working in the steel mill. Work, no matter the job, had its own fundamental dignity. I can’t say that I saw it all at once that summer when I would climb into bed exhausted from a day’s labor. But to this day, I still remember everything about that job. And I realize how important it was for me to understand its lessons.
Work is hard and hard to romanticize. Whether surviving on the floor of a steel mill or wrestling with budget reports in a high-rise office building, every job creates its own strain and stress.
At the same time, I do know what I learned in that labor gang: every job has dignity. It might be a dignity that may seem hard to imagine from the outside. But the dignity is always there. Pope John Paul II wrote that work is essentially a sharing in the creative work of God. Through work, “every human being reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (“Laborem Exercens,” 9). By our work, the Holy Father explained, we perfect the world according to the design of the Creator.
The pope knew what he was “talking” about. The Holy Father, who had experienced forced labor in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, also knew when work can rob a person of dignity — in conscripted labor such as he experienced, in situations when immoral or unethical work is forced on the individual, when a worker has no freedoms in the workplace, when the work is in dangerous circumstances or when unfair wages turn a job into virtual slavery.
As we remember on Labor Day weekend, when workers have no right to organize, no right to have their voices heard or their grievances raised, work loses its dignity. Under those conditions, work ceases and exploitation begins. This is true whether the worker sits in front of a computer or digs in a field. It’s true whether a worker is a born-and-bred citizen or an immigrant, undocumented or otherwise.
Hard work is nothing new to Pittsburgh — steel mills and coal mines, shipping and railroads, a thousand different factory jobs that demanded long hours and strong backs. The history of labor in this area was never the story of people who didn’t want to do hard work. Rather, it was a history of hard-working people who saw dignity in their work and who needed to be treated with dignity.
Back during the Depression, Father James Cox, stationed at Old St. Patrick in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, found that his parish was full of unemployed people needing all kinds of help. He had opened a soup kitchen, and that did a lot of good. But Father Cox did something else as well. He offered free haircuts and free shoe repair. He believed a good haircut and a comfortable pair of shoes got at least part of a person’s dignity back.
The social teachings of the church always center on the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. Our work is not something that contradicts that dignity. Work is something that helps us fulfill that dignity.
When I would hit the bed that summer back in 1968, I would often find that I was encountering the reality of “too tired to sleep.” I would lie there, trying to find a position that didn’t involve an aching muscle. It could take quite some time!
I had to put a few more years under my belt to learn the lessons of that summer. But I have never forgotten them.
This Labor Day, I do thank God for the gift of hard lessons learned at Armco Steel in the summer of ’68.
I also thank God for the hard work so many of you do, day in and day out, to make my world, our world, a better place.
I especially pray to God that any and all the “work” you and I do will also help to build the kingdom of God as Pope John Paul reflected.
One sure way to build that kingdom is to respect the work of each other — whatever it is — and especially to respect who does the work — you — each of you — created in the image and likeness of God and entrusted to you (and me) by God to reflect his ongoing creative power — through your WORK and mine!