Portrait of labor in our back yard

WITH THESE HANDS A

September 04, 1995

It's a job.

And whether folks love, hate or merely abide the one under which they toil, most consider themselves fortunate to have a job these days.

Be it manual or menial, when a task demands elbow grease, a thinking cap, or sweat of the brow, we call it labor. Today marks the 101st observance of the holiday honoring the American worker.

While the bottom line is always money -- from a $4.25-an-hour minimum to sweat over an open grill to upward of $20 an hour with union benefits to unload ships on the Baltimore waterfront -- work often equals identity.

Ask someone who they are and they'll tell you their name.

Ask what they are and back comes an occupation: nurse, teacher, cook, cop.

When Douglas Penn looks in the mirror, he sees a Steelworker.

"My personality reflects my job. When I think about who I am, I feel good about it," said Mr. Penn, a 36-year-veteran of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant. "This job consumes most of my time, but it allows me to be self-sufficient. You've got to be self-sufficient. It's a challenge to do your job to the best of your ability and then be rewarded -- not just the money, it increases your ego."

For Barbara Tortello, the factory whistle is the sound of 48,000 chickens clucking. The owner of a 60-acre family farm just outside of Cambridge, she has been a chicken farmer since 1945.

"It's the only job I have," said the 68-year-old widow, whose livelihood helped make Maryland the nation's eighth largest producer of broilers last year. "The chicken is my income."

Technology, which has eliminated good-paying jobs throughout American industry, allows Mrs. Tortello to run the farm with a few part-time employees. It was different when she and her late husband started the business in 1945.

"Everything was done by hand then," she said. "And it was much more hard work."

Honest work, when justly rewarded, is a means to so many ends: the support of family, a hobby or a way of life.

And earning is so profoundly different from taking.

Like the old preachers' tale about the man who asked God for a new car and got a job instead.

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