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An Ode to Labor Day

August 23, 2008

Robert Reich

Wedged in between the Olympics, and the Democratic and Republican conventions, is a holiday we still call Labor Day, along with Labor Day Weekend, although don’t expect much media attention to it or its meaning.

In truth, as a young man I never thought much about unions, or even about labor protections — at least until my first job.

I told my friends I’d landed a job in the advertising business. But that was an exaggeration. It was what today we’d call a summer “internship” — a kind of foot-in-the-door that might someday lead to a real job.

In truth, it wasn’t even a foot in the door. More like a big toe. I was a “go-fer” — someone who’s told to “go-fer” coffee, “go-fer” sandwiches, “go-fer” this or that package. I go-ferred for weeks, running around New York City on errands.

But even though being a go-fer wasn’t glamorous, I was fired with enthusiasm. I basked in the glow of the firm’s worldly-wise creativity, its brand-name clients, and the important meetings I’d supply with coffee, sandwiches and packages.

I was a “go-fer” — someone who’s told to “go-fer” coffee, “go-fer” sandwiches, “go-fer” this or that package.

After a time I got fewer go-fer assignments. I assumed this meant I was now primed for the big leagues, ready to join a full-fledged ad campaign. But the real reason was I didn’t know New York well enough and got lost when I went for a package more than a few blocks away. I was so late with one of them I didn’t deliver it in time for an important meeting. So they stopped asking me to go-fer.

At this point the head of the firm gave me a different assignment, but it wasn’t an ad campaign. It was to take care of his dog, which he brought into the office every day. A big Irish Wolfhound named Prince, who had a bowel problem. My job was, well, you can imagine. I told myself this was a kind of promotion. After all, I was now working for the boss.

But I was actually working for Prince. And one day I was scraping Prince’s bowel problem off the small terrace outside the boss’s office — for the third time that day — in the 95-degree heat and humidity of a New York August, and I finally realized something I should have known all along. This job wasn’t going anywhere.

So, I summoned the nerve to tell the boss I wouldn’t take care of Prince anymore, and he summoned the indignation to tell me I had a nerve, and that was that.

I ended my first job just as I had started it — fired … with enthusiasm.

Labor Day should remind us how many shitty jobs still exist.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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