In Our View: America’s Backbone

Labor Day’s focus reveals that workers have built economic and political democracy

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Labor Day has evolved over the years. What began as an ode to unionized workers, to those who were banding together to fight unacceptable working conditions, has been altered over the past century.

Now the holiday is often regarded as simply another day off, a chance for a final fling of summer, an opportunity for a backyard barbecue. Yet it remains important to assess the meaning of the occasion.

Established as a federal holiday in 1894, Labor Day celebrated a movement that eventually proved crucial to the development of the world’s most powerful economy and the rise of America’s middle class.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership stands at 11.9 percent of the workforce. Not counting government employees, the rate of union membership is 6.9 percent.

The power, influence, and force of unions has diminished over the decades, largely subdued by their own success. As unions spearheaded movements for improved labor laws and working conditions, for limits on child labor and working hours, the federal government in many ways reduced the necessity for such unions.

Labor laws now provide the protections once assured by unions.

So while we give a nod to the importance of unions in the development of the American way of life, we recognize the changing landscape of the country and the changing nature of Labor Day. And we celebrate those who have the willingness — and the good fortune — to have a job these days.

It’s no secret that the economy has been difficult on the American worker the past few years. Yet as of July, 153.2 million people were a part of the nation’s labor force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes more than 3 million teachers, 1.5 million janitors, 265,000 bus drivers, and 11,000 actors — each of them contributing to the vitality and diversity of the American economy.

Yes, America is working, yet an unemployment rate that has been hovering above 9 percent for more than two years is unacceptable. More and more people are finding themselves chronically unemployed, a condition that worsens over time as once-productive workers slip closer and closer to being unemployable.

As Evelyn Ganzglass of the Center for Law and Social Policy wrote, “The longer people are unemployed, the less employable they become because their skills decline and they lose connections to networks that may help them find jobs.”

The impact of prolonged joblessness will be felt not only by the affected workers, but by the children who are direct witnesses to the erosion of the American Dream. Economic insecurity negatively impacts the motivation and educational opportunities for younger generations, meaning that the ripples from the recession will be felt for years.

As the Department of Labor notes, we celebrate Labor Day because the “vital workforce added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.”

That economic and political democracy is being threatened while the recession lingers, and stories of huge bonuses for executives and graft among the captains of industry could lead to a revival of the union movement in this country.

That remains to be seen. But for now we choose to celebrate the American worker, the backbone of our nation. We celebrate those teachers and janitors and bus drivers and actors and everybody else who provides a positive contribution to the economy.

The nature of Labor Day might have changed over the years, but the importance or recognizing the laborers remains unaltered.