The way most Americans work has changed remarkably in the 118 years since Labor Day became a federal holiday, but still – as the Department of Labor explains on its website – the day 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.
By the mid-20th century, Labor Day was practically synonymous with organized labor, but in the 21st century, labor unions have experienced significant losses.
For a reflection on Labor Day over the years, here are excerpts from The Journal Gazette’s Labor Day editorials in the decades since World War II:
Sept. 1, 1952:
Citizens of a democracy have responsibilities as well as privileges. Wealth must be created before it can be enjoyed. If the nation is to continue to know a maximum of prosperity, all groups must engage in teamwork.
If any one of the great partners in the American economy overreaches itself the balance is upset and the machine stops running.
Labor has made tremendous gains. It ought to resolve on this day to protect the good will it enjoys. If labor makes the mistake of going too fast and too far at the expense of other groups, there will be unfavorable reaction.
Communists are the enemies of labor just as they are the enemies of all free men.
Sept. 3, 1962
The nation must get down to a sensible solution of the unemployment problem. There are too many people out of work or working only part time.
Too large a part of the nation’s total industrial capacity is idle. There must be new markets found for American goods.
The government will be able to help with these problems – Congress willing – but most of it must be done by private efforts.
We hope for a better spirit of cooperation among all Americans for their common benefit.
Sept. 6, 1976
The unemployment statistics just released by the Labor Department make one thing clear: Seven and one-half million persons in this country are still out of work, and the prosperity that a few months ago seemed just around the corner continues to elude them.
Their Labor Day will be like any other – no time clock to punch and no earnings in which they can take a measure of personal pride. Even worse, their problems are also our problems, representing a terrible loss – not just in taxes – but in wasted talents and abilities, our greatest national resource.
Most of all, in spite of the poor odds reflected by the record of the nation’s labor history, we’ve proved that a society can give to the worker a decent life and the fruits of his labor, including a holiday he can call his own.
Sept. 6, 1982
This is the day to remember the American worker. It is the day to understand the role of labor in shaping this society. And it is the day to be quietly grateful to the worker.
Some workers hustle, and not even for money but for the pleasure and meaning they get from work. Others loaf and make excuses and complain after the whistle blows. Most fall in between; mainly they get the job done and are content with that.
All, in one fashion or another, have created this masterpiece of a country, and each deserves job security, decent hours, treatment as a human being. Each has a stake in America.
Sept. 7, 1992
It’s always tempting on Labor Day to become nostalgic about the American labor movement.
(Unions) won collective bargaining rights and a high level of wages even for those who would never dream of joining a labor union. They’ve championed the cause of women. They’ve championed the cause of blacks and other minorities.
But in recent years, the labor movement has become a victim of its own triumphs. Union membership has been on a downward spiral for the past decade.
Labor’s struggles today are, in some ways, more daunting. That’s because the movement must demonstrate its relevance to a new generation that didn’t know the sweatshops and the straw boss.
But Labor Day isn’t the time for workers to trouble themselves with their current and vexing challenges. It is a time, rather, to celebrate the America they’ve helped build, the America they’ve made more caring, more decent. Within such justifiable pride-taking lies the strength to prevail in the days ahead.
Sept. 3, 2001
Labor Day arrives just after the release of a study showing corporate leaders’ pay continued to soar in 2000, and those who presided over mass layoffs did best of all. The trend suggests that CEO pay offers too many incentives to lay off workers as a quick fix to economic setbacks.
The latest report showed that the pay gap between company leaders and rank-and-file workers widened in 2000, continuing a trend from the previous decade. Executive pay rose 571 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared with 37 percent in worker pay over the same period, according to the study.
Some layoffs and pay disparity can’t be avoided in a competitive world. Nevertheless, more than a few economists believe executives rely too heavily on layoffs in trying to revive flagging profits. The toll layoffs take in morale among surviving workers and the cost of breaking in newly hired workers after demand picks up again often outweigh the short-term savings from layoffs.