Kemmeter Column: Public loses meaning of Labor Day
By Gene Kemmeter
Labor Day is here again, but does anyone care about the true meaning of the holiday or its historical significance except for organized labor and some workers?
The three-day weekend is celebrated more for its nickname of “the official end to summer” because boys and girls across the nation usually resume school on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Sure, a lot of schools now resume earlier, but families usually spend that weekend as one final gasp of their summer vacation.
Labor Day was officially created by Congress in 1894 as a way to pay tribute to the contributions workers made to the social and economic achievements of the nation and to appease the unrest brought about by the labor movement. By then, over half the states already celebrated a Labor Day in their states.
The labor movement started coming to the forefront in the 1870s because factory workers were working an average of 70 hours per week in unsatisfactory conditions. That situation prompted union organizers to focus on winning battles to have workers work shorter days of eight-hours while improving workplace conditions and their pay during a period where business owners were becoming millionaires.
Labor Day worked for the politicians because it gave workers a holiday off, which also boosted manufacturers because now workers would have additional time to spend money on their products that needed customers to drive sales upward.
Still, thousands of workers lost their lives in the ensuing years to win accommodations for workers that many take for granted today. The workers organized and formed unions to fight for worker safety, better pay, an eight-hour work day, a 40-hour work week, paid vacations, education, health care, retirement benefits, and overtime and holiday pay.
Their efforts prompted businesses outside the union ranks to improve their working conditions and the standards of living for their workers and spread those to the ranks of almost all workers.
Yet the animosity between labor and management continues into the 21st Century, especially in this era’s nasty political climate. In recent years, the labor movement has become persona non grata among some politicians and business leaders, who seem to indirectly say employees are overpaid, even though the nation depends on their work, including the wealth of those business leaders.
And studies indicate that a growing segment of the 40-hour-per-week employees in the nation are earning amounts that put them below the poverty line. The nation and most states have established a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which means earnings of $290 per week, or $15,080, yet businesses are finding those wages fail to attract jobseekers.
Studies are also finding that many skilled white-collar workers are spending more than 40 hours per week on work, including weekends, because they are constantly connected to work through technology. In other words, American workers haven’t advanced much in the 150-plus years since the labor movement began.
Business leaders and workers need to start working together again to adopt lasting standards for working conditions and compensation. Business and the economy depend on it.