Coming off the Labor Day weekend, I had time to reflect on what the holiday means beyond marking the end of summer, retiring (for the nattier among us) the white bucs for the winter, or an excuse for back-to-school sales.
I have mentioned before that my father was a union steward during my formative years. Although I have never been the member of a union, I have much respect for the labor movement and what it has contributed to our society. I also recognize the excesses it has generated over the years.
It is important to note that the timing of Labor Day is not an accident; no one sat down and said, “Gee, we really need a three-day weekend at the start of football season so people can relax before starting their fall activities.”
In much of the world, labor’s holiday is May 1st, or International Workers’ Day. Our country was wary of joining that tradition, lest it be seen as support for the violence of the deadly Haymarket Square Massacre in Chicago on May 6, 1886.
Labor got its holiday in 1887 — but on a less controversial day, i.e. — no U.S. “May Day” — by proclamation of President Grover Cleveland. Canada already had a first- Monday-in-September, Labor Day holiday, so some might have seen the move as neighborly solidarity. The truth is that many people were worried about organized labor getting too powerful and disrupting the economy.
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Over 125 years have passed and we still can’t figure out the proper balance of labor and management. To me it comes down to shared responsibilities and mutual respect. Whenever our government, unions, and management have struck the right balance we have successfully — and peacefully — negotiated protection from abusive use of child labor; strong wage and hour laws; the 40-hour week; paid vacations; pensions; and safer working conditions.
The child labor laws created “childhood” as we know it, required children to go to school, and gave us a broadly educated electorate. Wage and hour laws helped create a middle class with the time to enjoy life. The net result has been an ability to implement improving technology, grow new leisure-related industries, and a growing economy.
So amidst the holiday weekend activities, I hope some thought was devoted to acknowledging the wisdom that enabled our forebears to compromise for the good of society — and, indeed, for coming to the recognition that getting all of what we want isn’t as important as sharing.