Labor Day: An American Celebration of Workers

by cv harquail on August 29, 2014

American Culture is on my mind today.  

Of the three big distinctions between Au Pair childcare and other childcare, the idea of cultural exchange often takes a back seat.  One reason for ‘culture’ receding in to the background is that we regularly experience cultural differences and cultural exchange at the interpersonal level.

Cultural exchange feels like something that happens between us and our au pairs.

labor dayAnother reason is that — especially these last few years– American Culture seems more divided. It’s less a unified thing than a bunch of competing sets of values and perspectives. Whether it’s red vs. blue, north vs. south, city vs. suburbs, or 1%ers vs everyone else, …

It feels hard to point to something and say “Yes, *that’s* American Culture.”

Just think about this weekend’s Labor Day. All too often it ends up being treated as just a long weekend because culturally we find it hard to agree what we’re actually celebrating.

We tend to overlook the fact that Labor Day is a holiday invented by the Labor Movement.  Like the 40-hour workday and the weekend, we’ve got Labor Day because hourly workers banded together and fought for it.

Call me a socialist, but I’d like for more of us to talk about Labor Day as a holiday that honors solidarity among workers and reminds us that fair pay, decent hours, and safe working conditions are rights that workers not only deserve, but also that they/we have earned.

So why am I bringing this up on AuPairMom?

I can’t tell you the number of emails that I get from au pairs who are being taken advantage of in other countries– countries where Au Pairs’ work situations are not established by laws designed to keep them safe, to pay them fairly, and to make sure they aren’t overworked.

I know that the US State Department regulations didn’t come about directly because of au pairs or childcare workers banding together to demand them, but these regulations are modeled on national standards for pay, hours and work that were initially negotiated by Labor Unions.  So, thanks Labor Movement! You’ve ultimately made it easier for us to have great relationships with our au pairs!labor day kitten

On the other hand, think about the countries that send us Au Pairs. Many of them have far stronger supports for common workers (and don’t talk about France or Italy … yes, perhaps some of the supports are counter-productive).  Others have few regulations at all.

What do these differences in how Labor and workers in general are perceived tell us about ourselves, as Americans?

I’d love to see more of us wading into conversations with our au pairs and ourselves about “culture”, about holidays, about the value of work, about the value of workers, and about justice.

~~ end of rant ~~   Back to the beach chairs, everyone.


See also:

What counts as “cultural exchange”?
What’s the most “American” thing you’ve had to explain to your au pair?
10 Days of Work that Might Surprise Your Au Pair


WestMom August 31, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Interesting topic CV. We happen to host French girls and I find there is a chasm between how we perceive work. I have worked in Canada, England and the US so I have experience with a few labor models.

Here are some of the key differences I have noticed… (note that I am speaking with an Upper Middle Class NYC frame of mind. I can’t really speak for other areas of the country…).

I think Americans place a lot of emphasis on ‘following our passion’. Many of my friends in Europe have jobs, not careers. They are happy with a paycheck, a pension and a long vacation and don’t necessary tie their happiness into the success of their career. For good or bad…

I also think that we have a high tolerance for risk. I am a small business owner, living at the whim of market demands in my industry, and I am fine with this. I have zero benefits. I can be let go tomorrow. I have no pension, I have no paid sick or vacation days. I had no maternity leave. Meanwhile my feel colleagues who are permanently employed with full benefits can also be let go without notice. This is shocking to some foreigners who live with a strong safety net. But then again our unemployment rate is significantly lower than in some European countries because our labor market is more nimble.

Americans are also flexible. If I need to work 50hrs this week to complete my work, I will. I may log on to my work email on Sunday nights. I’ll take a call on a day off. By the same token, I don’t expect to come under fire if I have to split early to take DD to the doctor or work from home. A little give and take from everyone helps create a respectful environment. This would be unheard for most workers in France who clock at a max of 35hrs per week.

I also this we are very social in the workplace. Many of my European friends are probably more productive between their 9-12, 2-6 shifts because they fully focus on their work. In my past and current workspaces, we find opportunities to talk to one another and I think we open more about our personal lives.

And lastly, why is it that we Americans have so little vacation, and so many of us don’t even take all our vacation during the year? Not sure what is says about us as a country, but I think we need to fix that…

LondonMum August 31, 2014 at 3:09 pm

I understand where you are coming from but would address
“Many of my friends in Europe have jobs, not careers. They are happy with a paycheck, a pension and a long vacation and don’t necessary tie their happiness into the success of their career.”

You are right about wanting a pension and long holidays (however, to us they seem reasonable, not long!). Some people have jobs and some have careers, it depends what you do. In UK, the government are constantly telling us to sort out a pension for our future so most people do have a strong focus on this.

Also, there is a very strong culture of work/life balance, this is important to us. Many people work part time or job share, even people who don’t have children. It’s not because they lack passion for what they do but because time to “live your life” is very important to us. I’m sure it is in the US too, I’m not making any judgements, just explaining. In fact, there has just recently been a law passed that employees may request to work part time and employers are obliged to try and fulfill that request wherever possible.

Currently, there is a debate about passing a law which enables men to take more paid maternity leave to encourage them to take more of an active role in child rearing. This is considered necessary to strengthen the family unit as many children live as one parent families, usually the mum. Mothers on maternity leave can have 90% pay for 3 months, half pay for another 3 months and a statutory £100 per week for another 6 weeks. They are entitled to take up to a year off with their job being held open on their return. Many people can’t afford to take the full year but most take 6-9 months. I think this a wonderful thing to be able to choose to do if you want to/can afford to. Personally, I took a full year with each child and am so glad I did.

I work as a job share and I work in a profession where I need to be present to do my job, (working with kids with illness and disabilities), when I leave someone immediately needs to step into my shoes so it is tricky for my boss to cover my absence. However, if I do need to take my child to the doctor, I am very apologetic but my boss says, “I wouldn’t want someone who couldn’t be a caring parent to their own kids working here”. I’m fortunate I have a great boss and am senior enough to have some flexibility.

I know the question was about giving an American perspective, but I just wanted to give some balance, we don’t all lack passion for our work but most of us aim to achieve a work/life balance that we feel comfortable with.

Of course, in all countries, there are those that have no choice and are forced to work all the hours God sends just to make ends meet!

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