For many Clark County residents, this Labor Day will be more celebratory than in recent years. More and more people are going to work, as preliminary numbers show that July’s unemployment rate in the area was below 7 percent — compared with 9.5 percent a year ago.
Those recently released statistics take on added significance today as the nation pauses to celebrate the American worker. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is credited with saying, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” There is, indeed, dignity and importance in all labor. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay can enrich the soul as much as the pocketbook — a realization that over the centuries has helped the United States develop the world’s most powerful economy.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, today “constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” The idea of Labor Day arose in the 1880s, and there is some dispute over whether Peter J. McGuire in New York City or Matthew McGuire in Patterson, N.J., should be hailed as the father of the holiday. The inaugural celebration was in New York City in 1882 in accordance with plans formulated by the Central Labor Union.
In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law as a national holiday in 1894. In other words, Labor Day predates, say, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as an observance. As Peter McGuire said, the day was designed to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Not that the founding fathers of the holiday would recognize the makeup of the American workforce or the notion of labor these days. Some 130 years ago, it was difficult to imagine a workforce that integrated women and ethnic minorities. At the same time, it was difficult to imagine a five-day workweek, eight-hour workdays, a minimum wage, or paid vacations and sick days.
Not all that long ago, conditions for laborers often were abhorrent and dangerous, and the efforts of organized labor and progressive legislation have worked to mitigate that over the past century. Those gains were slow in coming. Henry Ford embraced the notion of paying his workers enough to be able to afford the cars they were making; a 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, which killed 146 workers, led to vast improvements in workplace safety; and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, minimum wage, and limits on child labor.
Each of those milestones has helped enhance the lives of working Americans and has helped build the middle class that long served as the backbone of the nation’s economy. While Americans are returning to work in the wake of the Great Recession, concerns linger about the state of the middle class and the availability of decent-paying jobs.
But, for now at least, things are moving in the right direction, as Clark County’s economy added 6,100 jobs in the 12 months ending in July. “We’re just in the right place at the right time,” said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department. “Economies do come back after downturns. Businesses do start investing again. Consumers start spending more. We are in a recovery.”
All of that will make this Labor Day seem a little more like a holiday than in recent years.