On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. The first state to adopt Labor Day as a holiday was Oregon in 1887.
According to most historians, the idea of Labor Day, which we observed Monday, was first proposed in 1892 by officials of a fledgling union movement.
Labor, in this instance, is generally meant to include people who do physical work as opposed to those who manage businesses that employ those workers. Labor Day, says a U.S. Department of Labor website “constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
While union leaders tend to claim it is the broad backs and strong arms of union members that have been the reason this country has seen so much prosperity for so many of its citizens, the fact is there is a symbiotic relationship between those who toil on the factory floor and those who manage the operations. Without the one, the other could not have succeeded.
While I’ve never been a business owner, I have spent most of my professional life on the management side of the equation. I have also been a union member, first as a retail clerk and later as a laborer for an underground utility contractor.
My second venture into the union required serious exertion. It was hard and satisfying work. So is the management side.
Compared to the heyday in the middle part of the 20th century, today’s unions represent a far smaller proportion of the people who drive the nails, harvest the food, process the materials and help serve up prosperity by gainful employment. To a major degree, unions have lost their allure.
Though it was others who crafted the concept of Labor Day, Samuel Gompers is heralded by most as organized labor’s chief architect. “Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation,” Gompers said. He was born in 1850 and died in 1924. One AFL-CIO website says of Gompers, “It is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American Labor Movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies.”
He must have been proud of his work and the growth of the unions during his lifetime. I wonder what he would think today.
Having pushed its way into the halls of political power by way of huge campaign contributions, organized labor has managed to handicap public employers.
Some civic leaders blame the recent spate of public agency bankruptcies on the excessive demands made by unions for wage and fringe benefit packages. Stockton, Vallejo, Detroit and others are so weighed down with the burden to support public employees with health and retirement programs that they believe they must drain their cities of the ability to be of service to all their citizens.
Few will argue that organized labor helped drive some safety issues and worked to secure better pay for its members, and by extension, for others. However, it also worked long and hard to make productivity difficult by limiting the tools employees could use to do their work. It established boundaries for how much employees can be required to accomplish, who can do the work and when it can be done.
In the construction industry, with which I am most familiar, organized labor in the past lowered itself to restricting the use of extension equipment by painters and demanding that three people build concrete forms that two people can easily construct. These are just a couple of examples. Managers and business owners frequently complain that union members underperform in order to draw out the work, especially in construction.
Being retired, celebrating Labor Day is a routine event, since nearly every day is a holiday at my house. Cheering the work of labor with parades and speeches is fine.
Protecting employees while finding ways to help them be more productive is also worthy. Let’s hope the unions repair to that side of the package.
Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.