When Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin claimed that resuming the $600-a-month stimulus payment for the unemployed would be a disincentive for them to return to their jobs, he showed just how out of touch he was with the American worker.
So it is especially important, as the country observes Labor Day this long weekend, to offer him and others in the administration a crash course in the American work ethic, courtesy of my youngest brother Kevin.
Kevin McGrath, better known as “Sherman” for his resemblance when he was in high school to the curious boy of that name in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” cartoon show, got his first job as a bag boy at Jewel Foods while still in high school, where his mechanical aptitude blossomed while taking shop classes.
He found he loved tools and machines, creating and disassembling things with his hands. He began gifting us with things he made, like tiny toy Christmas sleds or his custom paper towel dispenser.
After graduating high school, he went to work at a metal-parts factory where he was in Seventh Heaven, operating a Brown and Sharpe screw machine, which resembled a Dr. Seuss-like contraption with a hundred moving parts that spun, hammered, punctured, cut, whirled, ground, polished steel and brass parts, and squirted oil.
Within several years, he was promoted as the youngest foreman ever at the factory, supervising two dozen older men and women. A jump in pay enabled his cherished hobby of buying and rebuilding classic cars.
A partnership with the factory’s owners looked to be next. But computerization in the 1980s rendered screw machines obsolete, and the company had to shut down.
Disappointed but undaunted, Kevin enrolled in community college to acquire new job skills and, in the meantime, applied for dozens of jobs listed in the local paper. Two weeks later, he received a call from the public works department in the village where he lived, inviting him in. My brother “killed” in the interview and was asked to start the following Monday morning.
And that’s when the trouble began. Partnered with a veteran worker in a service truck, Kevin looked forward to assisting with a schedule of outdoor maintenance and repair tasks in his own town. When their first stop was Dunkin Donuts, he didn’t bat an eye. Nothing strange about starting the day with a pick-me-up. But when the second stop was a hidden parking place behind a retail store, Kevin started to get antsy. The veteran worker told him to cool it and that a short nap after the morning break was just what the doctor ordered.
On their third stop, Kevin was relieved, finally, that they’d do some real work. But after slowly circling one of the village’s parks, the senior worker said it appeared there was nothing that couldn’t wait until tomorrow, and he broke for an early lunch.
On it went the rest of the day. Driving aimlessly, shopping for something at a home-improvement store, mostly hunkering in the vehicle. The rest of the week passed similarly, finding parking places out of sight while snacking, smoking, and talking on the phone.
When Kevin said he was eager to start using some of the tools in the truck bed, his partner pulled rank and questioned his arrogance in trying to “upset the apple cart.”
My brother found himself back in the supervisor’s office two weeks after the interview, but this time to resign.
“You realize there’s a waiting list of people dying to have this job?” said the supervisor.
“I understand,” said Kevin. “But I gotta feel useful. I have to be able to look in the mirror at the end of the day.”
“Why not give it another month,” said the supervisor. “After you’ve gotten a couple of paychecks.”
“Thanks, but no,” said Kevin. It wasn’t the money, he explained. He wanted to do an honest day’s work.
My brother represents the overwhelming majority of Americans, for whom work means more than toil and sweat to support your family and a way of life. It’s also the pride, personal dignity, and fulfillment derived from your contribution to society.
It is something that Republican lawmakers cynically disregarded in refusing to renew the $600 unemployment stimulus based on the dubious claim that it would disincline American workers to return to their jobs.
Try telling that to my brother, who left a job with local government because he could not stomach loafing and today is the facilities maintenance coordinator for a bank chain.
Labor Day is not just to commemorate the history of the labor movement. It’s also to honor, and not insult, the honesty, diligence, and pride of the American worker.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.