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Labor Day 2016

September 5, 2016


The labor scene has changed a lot since Labor Day first began to be celebrated back in the late 19th century. The jobs are different and the makeup of the workforce is different. Even though in many sectors a wage gap between genders still exists, the inclusion of more women in the workforce enriches society and the economy. That wasn’t always thought to be the case. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), a U.S. iconoclast, philosopher, author, and naturalist, once wrote about “manly toil.” Thoreau believed it was Congress’ task to protect such labor because hard work was part of the pursuit of happiness discussed in the Declaration of Independence. Thoreau wrote, “Such is the labor which the American Congress exists to protect — honest, manly toil — honest as the day is long — that makes his bread taste sweet, and keeps society sweet — which all men respect and have consecrated; one of the sacred band, doing the needful but irksome drudgery.”[1] Although manly toil may no longer be politically correct, the value of hard work is as true today as it was then. Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and later President of the United States, said, “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Later, the great inventor Thomas Alva Edison said, “There is no substitute for hard work.” And author David Bly has written, “Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.”


In many ways, the Labor Day celebration honors hard work. Samuel Gompers, the famous labor organizer once said, “Labor Day differs in every essential from other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflict and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.” Gompers was probably referring to May 1 celebrations, because America’s Labor Day celebrates workers in the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor website states, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It continues:

“More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those ‘who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.’ But Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a ‘workingmen’s holiday’ on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.”

The historical conflict between the McGuires aside, Labor Day is no longer a “workingmen’s holiday.” The U.S. Department of Labor notes women currently account for 51 percent of the increase in total labor force growth.[2] The site goes on to note, “The largest percentage of employed women (40.6 percent) worked in management, professional, and related occupations; 32.0 percent worked in sales and office occupations; 21.3 percent in service occupations; 5.2 percent in production, transportation, and material moving occupations; and 0.9 percent in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations.” Several years ago, I wrote, “The best way to pay tribute to the American worker is to provide him or her with a decent job. I believe that labor, management, and government leaders need to work together to foster the conditions that generate more jobs. Private sector job creation is critical for ensuring the health of the American economy. But jobs must come neither as gifts nor as part of a welfare program. Workers need to shoulder the responsibility of preparing themselves for the jobs that are available.”[3] I still believe most of that statement holds true. The only thing I would change is that workers now need to prepare to themselves for jobs that may not now even exist. The world is changing that quickly.


In that article, I also wrote, “Job creation is too important a matter for bipartisan bickering. The American public is tired of politicians putting partisanship and ideology ahead of principled leadership. Americans want what’s best for America, not what’s best for the Democratic or Republican parties. Neither party can stake claim to having all of the good ideas or programs. It would be refreshing if politicians would listen intently to one another looking for ideas they can work on together. Unfortunately, it’s hard to listen if you never stop talking and it’s hard to agree if you are only looking to be disagreeable.” Rolf Jensen, of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, insists, “Behind every technological breakthrough there lies a dream. Behind every new product there lies a dream. Dreams create realities — through hard work.” As the summer season comes to a close, we should remember that hard work is always worth celebrating.


[1] Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” 1863.
[2] “Women in the Labor Force in 2010,” U.S. Department of Labor.
[3] Stephen DeAngelis, “Labor Day 2011,” Enterra Insights, 5 September 2011.

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