The first Labor Day was celebrated modestly in 1882 with a small union-organized parade in New York City. Twelve years later, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed it a federal holiday.
Unfortunately, President Cleveland’s proclamation did not usher in a century of friendly, mutually respectful relations between labor and management. Instead, the declaration was the first step toward periods of labor-management strife and occasional violence, punctuated with the rise of powerful unions and, recently, the demise of the unions.
There were tangible benefits. It was partly a century of progressive reforms, labor-management negotiations and, most important, rising prosperity.
Reforms included such things as the passage of strict child labor laws and federal and state safety regulations that protected workers from injury or death on the job. Workers’ compensation insurance allowed employees to collect payment in place of their regular salaries if they were unable to work.
But we still have many problems — growing poverty, stubborn wage stagnation, unequal pay for women, job discrimination, sexual harassment and workplace violence.
Most Americans use this first weekend in September to relax, barbecue ribs and get ready for a new year of work and school.
This Labor Day, however, we are reminded that Americans are working longer hours for less money, taking fewer vacations, watching corporate executives earn millions while wages for the middle class run in place and ponying up higher taxes. Troubling issues of race, class and economic status are infiltrating the workplace.
These are the problems to think about this weekend as we fire up the grill and try to make better lives for us and our families.