September 1, 2018
It was back in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when our nation was struggling to put industry to work. In this new capitalist environment the common man was fighting to recover from some seriously punishing labor practices that would lead to the labor movement being born. It was a time when pay for the average worker was low and the risk to human health was appalling. Even children often made up a big portion of the work force, but young women were also pressed into horrible conditions. What became known as ‘the great ‘robber barons,’ ran their steel mills, railroads, petroleum operations, and mines. They worked together to ship their products at fixed prices that made the owners wealthy on the backs of others. They claimed that the collusive actions they took through ‘trusts’ was just ‘smart’ business practices. The problem was that it broke competition and the free market.
At the time, grand, wonderful things were being invented. The people who made it possible wanted their fair share of the pie. Congress heard their cries and passed tough anti-trust legislation aimed at breaking up monopolies and allow fair trade. The ruthless treatment of workers continued but became more difficult thanks to public opinion brought on by a diligent press. There was glaring newspaper stories describing the loss of life in tragedies such as a notable fire in the garment district, serious accidents in mines, and deaths of workers on the railroads. Labor unions began trying to bring about collective bargaining but they had to face armed mercenaries hired by management. Life in those times was a struggle for the worker and the family. There was little hope for a future because the company stores used their own paper money and chips. They kept the workers obligated and tied down to the job and unable to walk away.
It was on September 5, 1882, still years before the Sherman Act and the Clayton Acts stopped the anti-trust behaviors, when in New York workers celebrated the first Labor Day holiday. Designed to celebrate labors contribution to the output of factories that were producing more and more products to be shipped all over the world, it was an instant hit. The Industrial Revolution was making it possible for the common person to own and use new inventions. In turn, that created more products and finally, thanks to the unions, better pay. Free trade was finally working. Workers began to see fair wages for a day’s work, and the workers found an ever-growing list of things to buy, including in some cases, stock in companies when they went public. It would be fifty years or so later when this would bust with the ‘stock market crash and our forefathers suffered through the subsequent ‘Great Depression.’
In our lifetime we have seen fantastic gains for the common worker thanks to labor unions, but we must realize that while the unions battled for increased benefits and wages they also have a negative effect for the profits of the company. Frankly, business cannot long endure or grow if the strain is too great. That’s when businesses lay off workers or ship off their production lines to third-world locations where they could hire people at lower wages. Alas, the pendulum swings and lives of the workers were harder. Nonetheless, this weekend, we celebrate the accomplishment of industry and the benefits brought on by and for the common worker. Finding a symbiotic equal relationship in an environment created by either side should always be the goal. It is finally the people who have a vested interest in production. Little by little, we all benefit.
All of this aside, Labor Day really has come to mean one thing to nearly all of us. It’s a holiday, silly! On top of that, it is the last holiday of the summer season and marks our final chance to frolic before school starts again. The retailers are already pushing ‘back to school’ clothing and supplies. Even the kids are getting anxious about those summer days of freedom disappearing. The new school year is about to take over their lives. It’s a big, big time for the vacation or hospitality industry. It is a stark reminder that vacationers will quickly fade away.
I remember the excitement of ‘back to school,’ more than I do about Labor Day, itself. The Corner store, located on the first floor of the Brunswick Hotel was in the business to sell school and office supplies and other novelties. The five and dime store, known to me as the ten-cent store, had piles of jeans, slacks, shirts, blouses, jackets, and tons of paper, pencils and those little pencil sharpeners. The Bargain Store, Ryan’s, Ferguson’s, Clayton’s and the Louisa Department Store were ready to display and sell their wares, as well.
Teachers busied themselves getting their rooms ready for the onslaught of students. The buses were being cleaned and tuned and otherwise being made ‘road worthy,’ for the new year. Labor Day was a holiday, yes, but it was the holiday to end all holidays. As a kid I felt a kind of pressure with the thought that there was so little time left to accomplish my summer goals. This holiday meant that time was up. With fall just over a nearby mountain peak, there was a new chill in the air. Football was underway and the band had ‘half-time shows’ to perform. Indeed, life was about to change.
The good news was that Labor Day is a holiday. The bad news was that summer was over. A new school year had begun. For some it was to be their senior year. The last year before life would really change. For others, it was another year closer for them to the final year. In that realization, we were kindred spirits, all on the same boat.
I don’t remember any parades, speeches, or parties. Maybe there were some. If so, I missed them or I have just lost the memory. Perhaps I was too busy trying to get that last fishing trip in, or a final baseball game. Maybe mom had dragged me out shopping to replace those worn-out tennis shoes. I had to talk myself into admitting the idea that life will go on after Labor Day.
Labor Day is, after all, a time to take notice of the armies of workers, including the laborers, middle management, and even upper management and investors. We owe those who go to work to earn their income, because that helps them and also help the economy. We can also thank government workers who attract businesses to our communities, and provide a lot of important services we often take for granted. It is a time that was originally meant to thank those who work day-in and day-out, all making life better for the nation. By that, the whole world has been blessed. Take a moment and give thanks to a worker for the fruits of their labor.
HAPPY LABOR DAY!!!