Accept and embrace it: summer is almost over. After all, Labor Day is next week and doesn’t that mean it’s time to get back to work, stop going to the pool, and start planning winter vacation? Doesn’t it mean a last barbecue, a neighborhood softball game, and a final long weekend before autumn arrives?
But what about celebrating “Labor”? Isn’t it called “Labor Day”?
When my kids were young I remember one of them posing a similar question: “Why doesn’t anybody work on Labor Day?” my daughter asked. So I tried to explain that this wasn’t a day about “labor” per se, but rather a day to celebrate the Labor Movement. Try that line on a four-year old!
Anyway, I was wrong. When Labor Day was originally proposed by the Central Labor Union of New York back in 1882, its real purpose was to serve as a tribute to the working class – the men and women whose physical, and largely manual, labor had built the country. The first Labor Day was marked by a demonstration with speeches in support of workers’ contributions, followed by a picnic. Over the next several years, this practice – supported by the unions – was adopted by municipalities and states until the federal government in 1894 declared the first Monday of every September to be a legal holiday (by some accounts to distinguish it from the socialists’ May Day celebration).
Today Labor Day has become more associated with a final fling before the end of summer rather than with a celebration of the working class. And perhaps a major reason for this is that the traditional, blue-collar, unionized “working class” is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the U.S. population. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 only 11.3% of private sector workers were union members – down from over 20% in 1983 – and that percentage includes many people in administrative and service roles. Moreover, starting in 2009, union members in the private sector were exceeded by those in government, most of which represent white-collar jobs. In other words, many of the workers that Labor Day originally honored just aren’t here anymore. Their jobs have either gone off-shore or simply don’t exist.
So is Labor Day an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier time, and no longer a meaningful holiday? My answer is that it can be exceptionally meaningful if we redefine the holiday to be more in accord with what my four-year old daughter was thinking – a celebration of work, regardless of sector. Remember that labor hasn’t become easier; it’s just changing. Just because a majority of workers are no longer unionized, blue-collar, manual laborers, doesn’t mean that they don’t work hard. In fact, these days many people work longer hours than ever to adapt to the global economy and ever-present communications technology. Knowledge workers perpetually tethered to their smartphones may not be physically working, but they’re virtually always at work. So perhaps Labor Day should recognize the productivity and contributions of office workers, knowledge workers, and those in service industries along with union workers, whether they are steelworkers, hospital workers, or government employees.
In addition, at a time when too many people are unemployed, Labor Day also can remind us that having a job – whether white or blue-collar, managerial or administrative, bureaucratic or entrepreneurial – is a precious thing. We should not take it for granted, but celebrate that we have the opportunity to “labor” (and to barbecue).
What is the meaning of Labor Day for you?
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.