This weekend we observe Labor Day, “an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers,” per the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.
Like many of our holidays with serious roots, Labor Day has become more closely associated with a three-day weekend and mattress sales than with the sacrifices of many workers that led to its creation. And Labor Day has serious roots, indeed.
According to The History Channel, “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.
“People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.”
During this period, strikes were increasingly common as workers sought better pay and working conditions. This, in turn, led to unrest, including violence and even deaths.
Sadly, there are places across the country today where those lessons have been forgotten, especially where underage workers are concerned. Earlier this year, the New York Times published an investigation into the prevalence of underage migrant children working in often dangerous jobs — in violation of child labor laws — as they strive to earn money for their families back home. Some of these jobs were in factories or construction sites, using dangerous machinery that sometimes resulted in horrific injuries. Exact numbers of youngsters affected are hard to pin down, but the Times’ reporter alone spoke to more than 100 migrant children in 20 states.
The United States needs to be better than this. Those who complain about migrants taking “our jobs” conveniently overlook the fact that employers can’t find many U.S. citizens who will accept such difficult, low-paying work. For example, The Capital Press reported in December 2022: “The Washington Employment Security Department placed 11 U.S. workers to help fill more than 34,000 job openings for farmworkers this year, according to a report to legislators.” The previous year, the number was zero.
The report continued: “Farmers must give priority to U.S. workers. The low number of placements shows that there is a domestic labor shortage, Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said.”
Such workplace issues are not top of mind for most of us in Clark County, where strikes by teachers in Camas and Evergreen school districts have delayed the start of the school year, impacting students and their families. We hope these contracts are settled quickly and fairly so students can return to class.
So let us reflect on Labor Day by noting that despite the challenges that still arise, the U.S. workforce is one worth celebrating. As the U.S. Department of Labor says, “American labor has raised the nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known and the labor movement has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”