Labor Day the Homeschool Way

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I’d write a homeschooling-related Labor Day post. It’s always nice if you can come up with a clear thesis, one really good link that supports it, and a way to tie it all to home education. For several days I worked toward this, but the result persisted: no clear thesis would evolve. Instead, I spun around and around in the years of  talk our homeschooling family has experienced about labor laws, management, and work.

My family talks about “Labor” a lot. My husband is a factory manager in a non-union manufacturing facility, though he’s also worked in union environments. He’s definitely “management,” not “Labor,” even though he’s found himself able to work well in both unionized and non-unionized environments. He’s worked as “Labor” himself, as a production operator during his school years.  And our history includes having lived and worked in textile mill towns; we’ve shown our kids the old pictures of nine-year olds standing on boxes to run dangerous textile equipment for a fraction of the pay an adult would receive.

One of our home educated sons has worked full-time at the dreaded Wal-Mart. Only he didn’t dread it. He excelled, and he came to a personal conclusion that the jobs Wal-Mart provided to some of his co-workers were the only jobs to be had in our economically depressed region – and that was before the Great Recession. He understood that in his case, the oft-reported low wages of Wal-Mart were subsidized by his ability to live in  his parents’ middle class home, yet his Wal-Mart experience stoked him with ambition and possibility. He moved rapidly from unloading trucks to a high-responsibility, high-integrity position, though he was never a manager during his just-less-than-a-year there. He talked daily with us about how some of his co-workers were benefiting from their Wal-Mart work, saving money for college or future entrepreneurial plans. He noted that some people who had apparently missed the lessons at home and school were  learning entry level job expectations (be on time, follow instructions) as well as learning about customer service and computers. He saw people who were  building or rebuilding lives on Wal-Mart wages – hurricane victims, former inmates, newly-divorced, recently laid off, back from the military, rejoining the work force after time at home with children, taking college classes, supporting a family.

Meanwhile, he did a lot of research and brought to our kitchen table discussion of  the criticisms that have been levelled at Wal-Mart. We’ve heard them all. He tried to work out the complexity of Wal-Mart’s impact on U.S. manufacturers and mom & pop hardware stores. We discussed his research and our perceptions of Wal-Mart’s impact on the environment, health insurance, consumerism, discrimination, competition, globalization, and local economic development.

Other kitchen table Labor discussions have seen us recalling the good old health care days for our family, when my husband worked in the automotive industry, and we luxuriated in a generous health care plan, available to us because of the plant’s need to stay competitive benefits-wise with union plants. On the other hand, we’ve also discussed the fact that the plant that once “ran wide open three shifts per day, seven days per week,” was closed — not competitive on the global market.

Our middle son’s work in a grocery store brought up other labor issues. Why were all the baggers male? Why were the males asked to mop up the messes (“Clean-up on Aisle Three”) and clear the parking lot of carts? Why were all the cashiers and assistant managers female but the managers male? Are gender roles at work more prevalent here in the South? More prevalent in grocery stores than in other businesses?

The youngest son is 11 and wants to work. He wants to know why he can’t legally do some jobs; we’re well aware of the laws to protect children, and yet he  willingly and ably splits wood for us even if he does fuss about emptying the dishwasher. We try to explain the morass of labor laws (no, you can’t pump gas or deliver papers or work in fast food right now); we explain about work permits. He frets and shifts his thinking to something entrepreneurial.

We discuss the relationship of work, labor laws and compulsory attendance. Our kids venture that one of the reasons kids are kept in school is to delay their cheap entry into the full-time labor market; they think that this creates an unhealthy situation for many in school.

“Guys need to work, Mom. A lot and hard. And they need money,” one of my sons asserts. We agree. Oh boy, do we agree.

At the kitchen table on college break, middle son reports on his classes, among them, macro-economics. I wonder aloud if it’s hard for him, since he never officially studied economics as a homeschooler. Financial management yes; macro-economics, not that we’d realized.

“Well, it’s generally pretty familiar actually, Mom.”

Oldest son, the one with Wal-Mart experience, turns aspects of his kitchen table discussions into a semester of college study, exploring competing theories on the globalization of business. We hear from him about the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and trade groups.

And as our homeschooling family of five embarks on a Labor Day weekend canoeing on Virginia’s James River, we discuss the economic viability of the river company that has provided us with our equipment, and we find out that one of the guys who works there works as an Alaska king crab fisherman during Virginia’s off-season.

“You make a lot of money doing that, right?”

“I make a lot of money if I don’t get killed doing it,” he says of one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

And thus, our family, launched into the river, is launched into another discussion of Labor.

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