It's a bit difficult to get excited about Labor Day this year. The state of labor -- the working men and women in the United States -- is too precarious to elicit anything other than concern. Couple that with the fact that most Americans now consider the holiday an end-of-summer ritual marked by a day off from school or work, by going shopping, and by sports contests and social events rather than a celebration of America's workers and it is easy to understand the pervasive pessimism that is the hallmark of the contemporary labor movement.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons that the gap between the official and unofficial observance of a day created to honor the nation's workers is so wide. The domestic economy, the global marketplace imperatives of the 21st Century and partisan politics have diminished the role of U.S. workers and completely altered the image of a a day that once saluted their service.
The labor movement pushed for the holiday in the late 1800s as a highly public way to salute the men and women whose work indisputably was the major factor in the United States' impressive rise to the pinnacle of the globe's industrial powers. When the holiday received legislative approval in 1894, it was natural that the labor movement would celebrate it with parades, oratory and festive gatherings that praised the dignity of hard work and the livable wages and benefits that toil provided.
In some places, but not many, that tradition is still followed, but the crowds are considerably smaller and the enthusiasm muted. That's hardly surprising. The role, power and influence of the labor movement has declined precipitously as the nation's workforce has moved from one that mostly made products from raw material to one that provides services. The resulting shift from blue-collar to white collar workers was the initial force for change in the labor movement. The anti-union sentiment of the conservative element in American politics and businesses accelerated it.
The result is a labor movement that is almost moribund. The percentage of American workers in unions continues to shrink and union-busting efforts at all levels is at an historically high level. Even high unemployment -- around 10 percent here and in double digits in many places around the country -- and the continued erosion of workers rights, pay and benefits have failed to galvanize organized labor or improve its acceptance with the general public. No wonder today's celebrations pale in comparison to those of the past.
Still there is reason to remember the labor movement and its role in the nation's history. Without unions, the U.S. workplace would resemble the horrors described by 18th and early 19th century muckrakers and novelists. Overtime pay would be a novelty rather than a requirement and there would be no age restrictions for workers. Working conditions, without a doubt, would be far more dangerous. The benefits earned by the labor movement decades ago now accrue to all workers, not just those with union affiliations.
The standards of fairness and safety now taken for granted at the nation's plants and businesses are hard-won. Men and women in the labor movement challenged prevailing opinion to win fair wages and safe working conditions. Those victories should and will be remembered today, but that's not enough. There is a pressing need for Americans to look to the present and future state of working men and women as well. They will find that those who must work for a living are in trouble, beset by problems of all types.
The types of jobs that made he United States the envy of the world -- ones that paid decent wages and provided benefits so workers could adequately support their families -- are growing rare. Service jobs that offer low pay and no benefits have taken their place in many instances. The result, encouraged by rapacious businessman and by fiscal and political policies put parochial interests above the common good, is a nation where a smaller and smaller group grows richer and richer while the larger population becomes poorer and poorer.
Correcting that abuse of American principles is proper reason to commemorate Labor Day. Perhaps the working men and women of the past can inspire the America of the present to resurrect a society and an economy in which the worker once again has an honored and useful place.