Remembering the “labor” in Labor Day

September 1st, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

In all the long weekend holiday plans and back-to-school activities, the true meaning and the origin of Labor Day can be lost in the shuffle. The holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September “… is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” You can read more about the struggles and history that led to the first Labor Day at the Department of Labor site.
What’s the pulse of the American worker today as we head into Labor Day? The New York Times reports that three polls find workers sensing deep pessimism. Most survey respondents indicated that wages are not keeping up with inflation and that conditions are worse than they were a generation ago.

“The nonpartisan Pew center, said, “The public thinks that workers were better off a generation ago than they are now on every key dimension of worker life — be it wages, benefits, retirement plans, on-the-job stress, the loyalty they are shown by employers or the need to regularly upgrade work skills.”

In a poll of 803 registered voters commissioned by the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Peter D. Hart Research found that 55 percent said their incomes were not keeping up with inflation, 33 percent said their incomes were keeping even and 9 percent said their incomes were outpacing inflation.”

With jobs being offshored, outsourced, and downsized, and with technology changing the very nature of how and where we work, it is an unsettling time for many.
Between now and Monday, there may not be a lot employers can do to tackle that deep-seated pessimism, but we think there are some simple things that employers can do to commemorate the holiday, even with the day fast upon us: recommit to providing a safe workplace. Take the time to thank your employees and let them know you value them. We think Labor Day might be a good time of year to issue bonuses, raises, and recognition programs.
A look back – tributes to the American worker
To commemorate Labor Day in the true spirit in which it was meant, we’ve gathered some links to a variety of sites that pay tribute to the American worker.
Labor Arts – a virtual museum that gathers, identifies, and displays historic images of working people and their organizations. The site states that its mission is “to present powerful images that help us understand the past and present lives of working people.”
The Quiet Sickness is a dramatic photo essay by Earl Dotter chronicling hazardous work in America.
Lost Labor – Images of Vanished American Workers 1900-1980 – a selection of 155 photographs excerpted from a collection of more than 1100 company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures documenting America’s business and corporate industrial history.
Austin at Work is a fascinating site that uses historic images to show the changing nature of work over the ages.
Public History Resource center“From the family in a tenement toiling over piecework to the farmer caring for his crops to the white collar crowds jamming the subway, the images, both textual and visual, and the experiences of work, both paid and unpaid, pervade the human experience and thus our history as well.” This page features links to other sites that tell the story of the American worker.