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The American Nightmare: Reflections on Labor Day

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Labor Day Nightmare

Who first proposed a day to celebrate the American worker?  History is clouded on this issue.  Some records indicate that it was Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.  Other data indicates that Michael McGuire, a machinist from Paterson, New Jersey, founded Labor Day.  He proposed the holiday in the year 1882, while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.  Upon acceptance of the proposal, a celebratory picnic and a demonstration were launched to honor U.S. factory workers.


By 1885, the idea of a workers’ holiday was accepted by many labor organizations in the country. As time progressed, several States sought legislation to establish Labor Day as an official State Holiday.  Oregon passed the first bill in 1887; later that year, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed suit.   Twenty-three other States subsequently adopted the Holiday.  On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act marking the first Monday in September as a legal Holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.


As industrialism evolved within the United States, so did the significance of the Holiday.  With the workforce swelling in American factories, the Labor Movement strengthened, sweeping broad social and economic change into the workplace.  The sheer size of the unions, and the criticality of their skill and cooperation in the manufacturing process, gave them a powerful voice.  Exercising this voice in collective bargaining agreements, unions were able to put sweatshops and the poor working conditions therein on the chopping block.  Never again would unionized workers be subjected to the perilous circumstances that sparked the Triangle Fires in New York City that claimed many lives.  Pay scales increased, and laws emerged, prohibiting the exploitation of children as laborers. A humane, 40-hour workweek was introduced so that workers could enjoy two days out of every seven free of their factory duties, thus coining the term “weekends.”


Later, contracts were negotiated through which employers paid out health insurance premiums for workers as well as their family members; the employees themselves received paid holidays, paid sick days, and pensions.  When these things were given in lieu of salary increases, they were called “fringe benefits.”   All of this occurred within three decades: between the 1950’s and the 1970’s.  Given the state of the economy today, the workplace of yesteryear almost sounds like Utopia.  And then, greed reared its ugly head, on the other side of the fence.


Manufacturers began seeking ways of increasing profits.  With their hands tied in legal sanctions, management found itself in a Mexican stand-off with the powerful and rather expensive unions.  Producers of goods began to shift — not ship! — labor overseas.   Abroad, unions were a foreign concept and so, labor was much cheaper.  Thrilled not to have to fork over those fringe benefits or escalating wages, manufacturing began its great exodus from America’s shores and onto foreign soil.


Today, little manufacturing is done in America.  Unions find themselves relinquishing hard-won benefits just to keep jobs Stateside.  China, India, and other once-underdeveloped nations are on the road to capitalism at the expense of the American worker.  We are supposed to be a nation of services and technology, but whom are we servicing?


In a strange and terrifying twist of fate, America now sits and waits as rest of the world catches up with our technologies.  If this is the future, then I’ll take the good old days, thank you!  I’d welcome the days when factories and mills hummed with activity from sea to shining sea, and we were the greatest nation on the face of the earth.


Our new leader in Washington DC appeared so interested, prior to his election, in taxation as a means of sustaining government.  So why not tax the exportation of American jobs to foreign countries?   This plan would bring at least some measure of employment back to America. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “The economy of the country depends upon the spending power of the people.”  But you cannot spend without a job! We have awakened from the American Dream to find ourselves in the American Nightmare.


Labor Day has gone the route of Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Veterans Day.  Now, it is just another day on the calendar.  I wonder what the McGuire boys would have to say about that. 

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