Monday, September 7

Labor Day 2009

Today is Labor Day. The last long weekend before school starts in many parts of the country. The last gasp of summer, if you've actually had summer. The last long weekend for any kind of getaway weekend. The last back-to-school sale weekend.

Labor Day, though, has a history. It is over 100 years old as the very first day celebrating those who work for a living was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City and sponsored by the Central Labor Union. In 884, the Central Labor Union selected the first Monday in September as the date for the holiday and the union urged other organizations to mark that date as a "workingmen's holiday." The idea quickly spread with the growth of labor organizations and labor unions, and the following year, Labor Day was celebrated in many of the industrial cities in the country.

Legislation for Labor Day evolved. Oregon was the first state to pass Labor Day legislation doing so in February 1887. Four more states enacted Labor Day legislation that same year: Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. By 1890, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit and by 1894, 23 other of the then 44 states in the U.S. had legislated Labor Day. In June 1894, Congress created national legislation designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day for the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories.

In the early days of the holiday, emphasis was on the workers and the contributions of the workers. Certainly the labor unions took advantage of the holidy to purport the advantages of the labor organizations but it is quite clear that, over the years, any declaration of appreciation for the American worker has been sidelined in favor of blow-out sales, last-minute vacations, the start of school (and football), and just a welcome three-day weekend.

How we work has changed dramatically since 1882. The role of the agragrian society is still hugely important and the work of some farmers hasn't changed appeciably in over 100 years. They still work long hours and nearly every day of the week. Many industrial workers in the U.S. have labor unions that protect the number of hours they work, the duration and number of number of breaks they get, and just about everything else that can be covered in a contract. The rest of us workers, whether we have the corner office still often reviled by the labor unions (though a good many labor "bosses" seem to have such offices themselves) or a cubicle in the dun-colored "cubicleland," just do our jobs, without union protection and often without any safety net if we work in an "at will" state. If we are hourly employees, we work our hours, as required, and probably most of us do the best job we can because we are fortunate enough to like our work and/or because we have personal integrity to do the best we can. And we work overtime when asked because we do get overtime pay and because we may worry about the consequences of not working overtime when asked. Most of us, though, are team players, whether hourly or salaried employees, and want to do the best we can for our places of work.

If we are salaried employees, we probably work long hours because of expectations and/or because of the work that needs to be done. When there are layoffs because of a recession or other economic factors, many of us take on the work of others--without grumbling too loudly or being careful to whom we grumble--and do what needs to be done.

I'm not saying that everyone in the American workforce is happy with his or her work situation; I'd be willing to bet that a significant number are not. And I'm not saying that we should abandon Labor Day because the holiday no longer celebrates the American worker as overtly as it was once intended. I am saying, however, that because we have such a holiday, whether our work is "blue collar" or "white collar," whether it is a trade or a profession, whether it is a factory or a school or a towering office building, it might not hurt for those of us who are in supervisory positions to take a few minutes on Tuesday to say "thanks" to the folks who work for us and with us.

I would also say that even though we have managed to create a day of recognition for administrative assistants (no doubt an invention of Hallmark), Tuesday would be a very good day to take the time to thank those people who make your day-to-day work possible: the folks who clean your buildings, who work as security, who provide whatever support is necessary to make sure your business runs as it needs. Those folks work hard and so often in the shadows or behind the scenes, but they are as critical to anyone's success as anyone else in the building.

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