Monday, September 3, 2012

A greater gratitude for Labor Day

In December 2010 I was laid off and struggled for the next 19 months to juggle multiple jobs even as I searched for full-time work. This year, Labor Day is more than a day off. It’s a symbol of answered prayer.

It used to be just another holiday. In my book, Labor Day had some obscure relationship to work, but as far as I was concerned, it’s greater significance was that it meant a three-day weekend. I learned early on as a young adult that three-day weekends were a rarity to be appreciated, and so I did.

Wikipedia’s entry defines it as a holiday that “celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers” and that it first was proposed by labor unions. Perhaps that’s one reason I’d never paid particular attention to the holiday. I’ve had run-ins with labor groups starting at a time when I was too young and na├»ve to understand why, as an assistant foreman walking out a factory door after work one night, I was called names and jeered at as I walked across the parking lot to my car. I guess they considered considered me "management," although my wages at the time surely didn't reflect that, and to my bosses, I was a likable, young college kid who for all practical purposes was just another grunt.

Other conflicts arose when I was a reporter in Wyoming, where some members of the teachers union resented my efforts to cover school board-teacher negotiations. When I started using Wyoming’s relatively new Freedom of Information Act to gain access to offers and counteroffers, I started receiving veiled and sometimes pretty clear threats.

So most of my experiences with labor unions over the years have not been particularly good, and many were downright bad. Still, labor unions have performed some very valuable services to workers, particularly in terms of safe conditions, standardized work hours, among many more.

But one thing labor unions have never been able to conquer is the economy, and when the stock market and GDP go south, so do jobs.

And really, jobs are what Labor Day is all about — the ability to work and do your best to provide for your family and, if you earn enough, perhaps even pursue the American dream, which I still believe is no more than a marketing ploy by corporate America to trick us into spending more and more on things we could get alone without, to pursue luxury with such a vengeance that we lose our souls in the process.

So when the recession began in 2008, I and many of my other colleagues braced ourselves for more cuts — although the newspaper industry had been cutting in fits and starts years earlier. Still, I thought I’d positioned myself better than most: After more than 17 years as a copy editor, I had moved to the Web team for Sun-Times Media’s suburban papers, believing that was where my future would be.

That was in September 2007, The truth be told, my move probably saved my job for another three years. Newspapers were hurt badly — the recession was the second in eight years, and those came as the industry bumbled around trying to make the Internet work like a newspaper. It does not, and the industry was not prepared for the revenue losses that would follow, particularly in the late 1990s, when Craigslist stole away the lion’s share of newspaper revenues by offering for free what newspapers long had make a killing from — classified advertising.

So in December 2010, my career collided with — what do you call it? Destiny? Reality? Regardless, for the first time in about three decades of work, including summer and part-time jobs I held in college — I found out what it was like to be let go, laid off with little more than a perfunctory “thank you for your years of service.”

For the next 19 months — as represented in this collection of blog posts — I struggled through the pain of losing that job, suffered through the accompanying loss of self-esteem, worried about my family’s well-being, and experienced the daily frustration of trying to find a job in the digital world.

I had some help and encouragement along the way, and as painful as those 19 months of un/underemployment were, I still feel fortunate in many ways. There are plenty others out there who, since even before 2008, have measured their period of un/underemployment in years rather than months.

Throughout my ordeal, I wanted to remain in journalism, and worked part-time jobs that allowed that. For about a year, I worked as a freelance guest copy editor for some websites. When full-time positions opened up, I’d ask, most frequently learning I lived too far from this community or that.

Until a position opened at the St. Charles Patch. St. Charles is a 10-minute drive from my Elgin home, is a lovely, vibrant community with a lot going for it.

And the folks at Patch liked me.

August was my first full month at Patch. The work has been at times exhilarating and exhausting. Largely, it’s been fun and, as with any new job, often daunting or overwhelming. But I adapt well, and I’m doing good.

So here it is, Labor Day 2012, and I am a little more than a month into a job for which I hold great hope and for which I have a great appreciation. So many times over the years, Labor Day was a time for a picnic, maybe a cookout, a day to get out and fish.

But this year, it means much more than that to me. I am a working journalist again, now for Patch. I get to do the things I enjoy: write, make pictures, edit, write headlines — oh yeah, and practice the social media skills I gained during my 19-month hiatus from the work force.

For the most part, barring some major news event(s) today, I’ll have my day off today, Labor Day. But this year, Labor Day is much more than a day off for me. It is a symbol of answered prayer.