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Labor Day


Labor Day is one of those special holidays that lie in-between holidays that are generally considered more illustrious and important. In fact, that is exactly why it is always celebrated on the first Monday of September … it is … in-between.

Labor Day is, as we all know, a day set aside to honor the contributions of the laborers, both past and present, to the American economy. I think, however, most would agree that Labor Day today is mostly a day set aside to honor the last of summer … the last picnic, the last summer vacation, the last day before many schools open for the year.

In the 19th Century, it meant more than that. It was a day in which workers literally put their jobs on the line to celebrate a day honoring laborers. Following the Industrial Revolution, workers began to enjoy steady employment but in so doing, longer work weeks and pay cuts began to make itself felt on the American workforce.

Thus the birth of the American labor union.

In 1882, after visiting Toronto, Canada’s Labor Day celebrations, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor Peter J McGuire decided to also create a workers parade in New York City, on September 5th. The date was chosen because of the long holiday void between July 4th and Thanksgiving. Literally, an “in-between” holiday.

In that year of 1882, thousands marched from the New York City Hall to Union Square followed by an afternoon picnic, concerts and political speeches rallying for an 8-hour work day at Reservoir Park. Two years later, the celebration was moved to the first Monday in September. For many, the choice to celebrate the holiday and march with fellow workers meant to either work or celebrate, in which case, it meant a day of lost wages.

That began to change when Oregon became the first state to legalize Labor Day in 1887. Other states soon followed. In 1894, railroad workers in Pullman, IL went on strike to protest wage cuts. President Grover Cleveland sent in the military to control what was becoming a violent protest where two striking workers were killed. To appease the angry crowds, President Cleveland then signed a bill that would put Labor Day on the national calendar.

Today, the idea of unions and the reason for them has changed drastically. In fact, in a 2009 Gallop poll, we find opinions on organized labor taking a dramatic shift. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation's economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans -- 48%, an all-time low -- approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago.

We’ve had a long surge of economic health. In which time, we’ve become accustomed to all of the benefits enjoyed by gainful employment; vacation time, sick time, benefits, 401k accounts, pensions, insurance, etc., etc. It was exactly those benefits that labor unions seem to most help. Today, it is hard to concentrate on benefits when we are reaching a near double-digit unemployment rate and when the economy doesn’t seem to rally as experts have promised.

Obviously, according to the poll, our view of labor unions are shifting. Perhaps Americans are more interested in employment than they are the gravy, so to speak, of excessive benefits.

This Labor Day, I plan to be mindful of the thousands and thousands of workers who have literally built this great country; brick by brick, board by board, piece by piece; thus allowing all of us to enjoy the wealthy, resourceful, independent country we have today. I also plan to spend a little time being grateful for employment; our ability to work and live and exist and compete in a free economy and in a free country.

I also plan to grill, and picnic (even indoors), and celebrate the end of summer. And I am very, very grateful that someone had the foresight to give us this great “in-between” holiday in which to enjoy it all.


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