The nature of American labor has been altered during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the meaning of Labor Day remains resolute.
Dating to the 1880s and the growth of organized labor, today’s holiday is a celebration of the American worker and the efforts that turned our nation into the world’s preeminent economic power. While the United States rightly has celebrated entrepreneurs and industrialists who spur creativity and innovation, Labor Day recognizes that the brilliance of those leaders would have wilted on the drawing board if not for the workers who turned vision into reality.
It has not been easy. As History.com writes: “In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.”
Unionized labor grew out of these conditions, gradually gaining power and influence while advocating for legislation that improved conditions for laborers. The United States — and all developed nations — now have requirements governing overtime pay, limits on work hours and child-labor laws. In the process, they have improved the lives of American workers.
Those laws have contributed to the decline of labor unions in the United States, diminishing the necessity of organized unions. In 1955, 33 percent of American workers belonged to a union; by 1980 the percentage was at 20, and it now is about half of that. Most unionized workers these days are public employees, such as teachers and law enforcement officers.
The result, in part, has been a decline in the American middle class. Gains forged by labor unions helped build an economic foundation for laborers in the mid-20th century that strengthened our nation and constructed the world’s most prosperous economy.
But a philosophical change can be seen in the Republican Party platform over the decades. In 1956, Republicans officially stated that “protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.” By 2012, the thinking was that the National Labor Relations Board was “a partisan advocate for Big Labor, using threats and coercion outside the law to attack businesses.”
Indeed, the climate has changed for American workers. And the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the landscape in unforeseen ways that have created an unpredictable future.
Locally, The Columbian reported last week that Clark County has added 11,400 jobs since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. The rate of growth outpaces statewide and national numbers.
Yet employers here and throughout the country often report difficulty in finding workers to fill openings. Unemployment is near historically low levels, yet many would-be employees are choosing to remain out of the job market.
There are various reasons for this, but the long-term solutions involve training for employees to prepare them for available jobs, along with pay and conditions that can lure them back work.
All of that is beyond the scope of how many of us view Labor Day. Regarded as the unofficial end of summer, the holiday typically is regarded as little more than an opportunity for a barbecue and a chance to enjoy a day off.
But the history — and the future — of Labor Day is far more complex.