Labor Day Calls For Reflection On Our Progress
Labor Day is viewed by most people as the marker for the last days of summer and not for what it really is – the opportunity to reflect on more than a century of progress. When we get comfortable, it’s easy to forget about the struggles that were endured to obtain that comfort.
We tend to forget the battles that were fought to win the rights and liberties we enjoy today. Labor Day should be a reminder to every working American of those fights. It is a federal holiday that was born in the midst of contention. It wasn’t eagerly signed into law as a federal holiday, it was merely done as a concession in the midst of the contentious election year of 1894 by an incumbent who needed a win (President Grover Cleveland). Though Labor Day’s first appearance is usually cited as Sept. 5, 1882, at an event planned by the Central Labor Union in New York City. At the event, 10,000 workers marched from City Hall all the way to 42nd Street and then met with their families in Wendel’s Elm Park for a picnic, concert, and speeches. – Source, United States Department of Labor. “Labor Day History.”
Most working Americans had no protections until relatively recently. No workers’ compensation to protect them in the event of a work-related injury, no unemployment protection in the event of job loss if that job was lost at no fault of their own, no minimum wage regulations requiring fair and equal pay, no safety regulations to speak of, oh – and no weekends off of work. Things that we take for granted now – things that are actually mandated by the state to be publicly posted by our employers where all of their employees can readily access and read the information – we tend to forget were all the result of hard fought battles over the better part of the 19th and 20th century. We didn’t always have 40-hour work weeks. We didn’t always have worker protections in place.
But now we do.
We should use Labor Day, not as a marker for the last days of summer, but as it was intended, as a day of rest and reflection to be thankful for how far American workers have come. How far our society has come. We are still far from perfect, but we are so much better than we used to be. Every year, let Labor Day be a reminder of how far America has progressed. Let it be a reminder of how workers banded together to overcome injustices, inside and outside of the workplace. Of course we can still improve. Of course we should still strive to be better. But not at the expense of forgetting how much better we are now than we used to be. Not at the expense of failing to realize that we are living in a time of unprecedented levels of worker protections. And we need to remember that. Because we fought hard to get here. It’s also worth remember much of that work was championed by Unions.
Every year, let Labor Day be a reminder of how far America has progressed.
My grandpa was a Union man. In fact, the local Teamsters chapter here in Fort Smith, bears his name, Ott L. Rogers. I grew up hearing stories of worker injustice and I remember how hard he fought to protect those truck drivers who didn’t have the resources to fight for themselves. I hold a place of deep admiration and respect for much of the work that was done by Unions. Monday, Sept. 7 is a federal holiday for all of us because of Unions. Much like the countless worker protections that are now prominently displayed by our employers. Unions led the charge in fighting for those rights, but we all benefited. Unions may not play as large of a role in today’s society as they once did, and regardless of your stance on them, it’s important to remember so many of the rights we all enjoy as workers we have because of their resilience and dedication to the cause. Unions today are often made out to be Quixotic, charging at windmills for the lack of any real giants. But make no mistake, if there really are no more giants roaming the land, it’s only because of their successful conquests over the last century.
“No day in the calendar is a greater fixture, one which is more truly regarded as a real holiday, or one which is so surely destined to endure for all time, than the first Monday in September of each recurring year, Labor Day. With time, this day of the year is taking deeper hold in the respect and confidence of the people. It is regarded as the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs might be discussed, placed upon a higher plane of thought and feeling; that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it; meet at their parks, groves and grounds, and by appropriate speech, counsel with, and pledge to, each other that the coming year shall witness greater efforts than the preceding in the grand struggle to make mankind free, true and noble.” – Samuel Gompers, president, American Federation of Labor, September of 1898.