Labor Day weekend, these words just seem to go together like pie and ice cream. They bring forth images of parades and barbeques, the last long weekend before the start of the school year, shopping and the coming of fall. Labor Day is different than most holidays in that it doesn't have religious beginnings or mark a particular event or person. The first labor day, was held in New York city by the Central Labor Council in 1882. Oregon was the first state to enact it into law in 1887 and by 1894 it was made a national holiday. May Day is used to honor workers around the world, but in the U.S it was changed to avoid tying it to the Haymarket massacre. The holiday was called the "working man's holiday" and was meant to honor the contribution of American workers to society. Some of the contributions of labor are the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, health insurance, pensions and building the most productive economy the world has ever known. The list could go on.
Abe Lincoln was quoted as saying "labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never exist if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much higher consideration." Adam Smith, the so-called "father of capitalism," said "labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Whether you agree with these great thinkers or not, you must admit, these are not commonly espoused beliefs in our society today. We seem to be much more enamored with money and power than with providing for you and yours with a day's work. The media hang on every word from the masters of business, many of whom are more interested in their compensation and maximizing shareholder value than reinvesting in the people and things that made the company successful. They seem to view labor as a cost to be reduced, instead of a resource that can make the company money. This was never more evident than with the comments of the CEO of Boeing Jim McNearny, who said when asked if he would retire: "No, the heart's still beating, and the employees are still cowering". He later apologized saying it was a joke. A poor joke at best, Jim.
We really should honor labor, it's what makes society possible. Think about it the next time you turn on your lights, your water or flush your toilet. How much work went into providing that? Every time you get in your car and drive on a road, go to the gas station or the grocery store, workers made all that possible.
We are all workers for the most part, from the people who harvest our food to the president of the United States, from the doctor, to the homemaker who stays home to raise their children (the most important job of all, I think). Without workers society would grind to a halt in a hurry. I think our laws and politics should be a little more worker-centric, a little more bottom up rather than top down. After all we are all brothers and sisters in work, we make the world run and the government is supposed to be of, by and for us not for business, but that is another story.
So, this Labor Day, relax and have a good time, pat yourself on the back, you've earned it. But when you go shopping, picnicking or barbequing, remember that the day is about honoring labor, and there is honor in all labor; all labor has its place, no matter how humble.
Let me leave you with one more Lincoln quote, "Let us always remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in bonds of fraternal feelings." So give a fellow worker the honor of a thank you for a job well done, you just might make the word a little better place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Johnson is the vice president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council.