Labor Day Remembered

Posted on 03 September 2010

As the sun sets earlier each evening and a hint of autumn floats on the cool night air, summer’s final chapter is written on the Labor Day weekend.  Like every holiday, Labor Day immortalizes the events and people it is designed to honor.  Or does it?

Allegedly, Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, initiated the Labor Day holiday as a means of honoring American workers.  However, other sources state that Michael McGuire, a machinist from Paterson, New Jersey, proposed the holiday in 1882, while serving as Secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

Once Labor Day was instituted in New York, other States followed suit.  By 1894, twenty-three more States were celebrating the holiday.  On June 28th of that year, Congress passed an act designating the first Monday in September as a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

In the ensuing years, the Labor Movement produced positive social and economic change in the American workplace.  Sweatshops and poor working conditions (i.e., the Triangle Fires) were on the chopping block.  To allow workers to enjoy weekends free of their labors, the 40-hour work week was introduced.  By way of collective bargaining agreements, the unions improved working conditions as well as wages, thereby elevating the satisfaction of their members.


Contracts were negotiated through which employers provided workers with paid holidays, sick days, pensions in lieu of pay raises, and health insurance benefits for both laborers and their families.  These were called “fringe benefits.”  This all happened during the 1950s, 60s and 70s; in today’s economy, it sounds like Utopia.  But Utopia did not last.  It began to crumble the minute industrialists and manufacturers began to ask themselves, “How can we make more profits?” And the answer came back: “If we replace American workers with machinery and cheaper foreign labor, we won’t have to underwrite “fringe benefits” and we won’t have to negotiate with the unions.”  Thus began the great exodus otherwise known as “outsourcing of jobs.”

Today, little manufacturing is done in America.  Unions find themselves returning benefits hard won just to keep jobs in this country. Is this the American Dream or the American Nightmare?

China, India, Latin America, and the rest of the world are on the road to capitalism at the expense of the American worker, for these countries are awarded the jobs once performed by Americans. Some say that we are a nation of services and technology, but whom are we servicing?

It seems as though America has to sit and wait for the rest of the world to catch up before we can once again realize the American Dream. If this is the plan for the future, then give me the good old days when factories and mills hummed and bustled with activity; the good old days when we were the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

The history of the American Labor Movement is written in the blood, sweat, and tears of the workers who brought collective bargaining to the table and dignity to the workforce.  But, household-name corporations, such as GE, RCA, Philco, Ford, Chrysler, and so on, have no allegiance to the country that engineered their emergence and success. Power hungry and fueled by greed, Corporate America was bailed out by hard-working taxpayers just to stay afloat.  Yet, Corporate America has not returned the favor to American workers; it has not brought outsourced jobs back to the U.S.  Instead, industry continues to use public funds to finance its foreign endeavors!  Big business has abandoned the American worker in favor of never-ending profits. This is a sad end to a great society.   

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated that, “the economy of the country depends on the spending power of the people.”  Without jobs, we have no spending power!

This Labor Day, we will celebrate with picnics, backyard barbecues, and trips to amusement parks, the mountains, or the shore.  The last hoorah of summer will come and go with little or no reflection upon, nor a care for, the sacrifices of the people who gave us this holiday. 

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