What IS Labor Day, Anyway?

Posted: August 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

When I was growing up I would ask my parents why there was a federal holiday the first weekend of September and they really couldn’t tell me, at least not very well. They weren’t union and didn’t know much about the labor movement to begin with. So for them it was something generic about the dignity of work. Work was good for you and it was good to be industrious. They praised the Protestant work ethic. Then grilled on Monday.

What they didn’t share were the deplorable conditions for workers preceding the labor movement in our country. Wages, conditions, hours, children, unemployment insurance – all of these things were routinely ignored by powerful employers. It wasn’t until collective bargaining, strikes and legislation that the lives of workers were honored and protected.

There has always a tension between management and organized labor. That was due to more than profit margins and impact on the bottom line; it had to do with ownership’s desired autonomy to do whatever it chose to do. Restrictions, standards, mandates and money created conflict. It often became violent.

Over the past few decades the power of the unions – and membership in them – has declined overall. With that decline the wages and benefits of unrepresented labor have also stagnated or declined.

Over time powerful political entities have methodically stripped away power from the workers. Corporations talk about valuing their labor force but decisions are routinely made that pursue exactly the opposite course. In fact, as workers’ wages have declined upper level management’s salaries have skyrocketed, creating huge and increasing gaps. That is one of the reasons why employee loyalty is now at very low levels. Today they can’t count on the kind of security that middle income Americans assumed as recently as a generation ago. They no longer expect to hold a long-term career in the same organization. Morale sags and so does production and innovation.

Of course, there are many shining examples of companies that have responsible investment in their workers. Investing in staff and workers is always the critical first step in making sure that an organization performs at high levels and the labor pool is dependable. It shows in these company’s bottom lines. The organizations that are built to last, to borrow the phrase, know how to do this. A living wage is a start. So are health insurance benefits. And a retirement.

We make a mistake if we consider these issues of labor, employment and wages as only political matters and business concerns. These are actually moral issues that have to do with our understanding of the dignity of work, the social contract between management and labor, and fairness in the treatment of workers. Just watch when tax reform comes before our congress. Watch carefully and ask who the proposed changes will benefit. Ask yourself if it represents a benefit to the broad middle of our society. I believe we will be shocked by the bias. And it will not be a bias toward the worker.

Until we restart valuing workers in a real way I suggest that we just cancel Labor Day. We can make up another reason to have a long weekend. But let’s not pretend that we have the same appreciation for the rights and well-being of workers that we used to before we started devaluing them. Let’s not pretend. That would be, now what’s that called? Oh yeah, hypocritical, that’s it.

This is a moral issue.

  1. Gloria Beranek says:

    So good, so clever, and so correct!

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