I celebrated my first Labor Day as a bona fide member of the American workforce on Sept. 7, 1970.
On Sept. 4, we will celebrate the holiday again, just as we do on the first Monday in September every year to honor the history of the American labor movement and the social and economic advances made on the behalf of the American worker.
To many people, however, Labor Day signifies the end of summer, department store sales and the return to school for the kids. To some, it’s an opportunity to have a picnic, hit the lake or fire up the smoker one last time for a summer backyard barbecue.
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Born of strife
The origins of Labor Day were anything but a picnic. It is a holiday that was born in the labor strife and violent worker protests of the late 1800s including an incident when workers were killed by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marshals Service officers in 1894 as the federal government sought to break up the Pullman railway car strike in Chicago. In an effort to smooth tensions a few days after that strike ended, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to approve a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. It was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in June 1894. Dedicated to the economic and social achievements of American workers, the day constitutes a annual tribute to the strength, prosperity, and well-being workers provide to our country.
According to “Time” magazine, many people trace the holiday to an organized parade in New York City in 1882, when leaders of the Central Labor Union called for what they termed a “monster labor festival” on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
That date remained for a couple of more New York Labor Days, but the third annual New York holiday was scheduled for the first Monday in September, “Time” said. That first Monday date stuck.
Several states already were celebrating official state labor days before it became a national holiday — Oregon the first in 1887, with New York, Massachusetts and Colorado following suit.
Many cities used to note the day with parades, speeches and community picnics, but now the Labor Day weekend is known for concerts and major shopping events.
Today’s labor force
The city of Keller’s workforce is robust with 3,271 businesses and 31,074 people working within the city limits.
The city of Keller is robust, with 3,271 businesses and 31,074 people working within the city limits, according to the Keller Economic Development Department. The city doesn’t have any official Labor Day special events planned, Public Information Officer Rachel Reynolds said.
But the city where it all began, New York City, still celebrates the holiday with a large Labor Day parade. This year’s parade is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 9, along a route in Midtown, according to the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council.
Even as union membership has declined through the decades, labor issues still are at the forefront of American society — the debates over the minimum wage and equal pay for women, for example.
Even in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, labor unions continue to press wage and work-condition issues with employers. Right-to-work laws generally prohibit labor unions and employers from entering into contracts that only employ union members for the jobs covered by the contract.
The percentage of wage and salary workers in the U.S. who were union members in 2016 was 10.7 percent, or 14.6 million workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the agency said.
Compare that to 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available. In that year, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers, the bureau said.
In the modern political environment, unionization is a hot button issue as companies across the nation contemplate laying off workers or shipping manufacturing and other jobs overseas to increase or maintain profitability. Unionized or not, American workers remain the backbone of our country’s well-being.
Reflections on hard work
The significance of that Labor Day in 1970 was lost on me for decades. I hadn’t really thought about it. But in retrospect, it was a date of great importance because it marked a coming of age for a teenage boy just starting his work life.
My first job came unexpectedly.
I was mowing our lawn when a neighbor I barely knew walked up to the house and began talking with my father and me. He was a veterinarian with an animal hospital a few miles away, and he explained that he was looking for a kennel worker/surgical assistant for the summer and wondered if I was interested.
“You look like you’re a hard worker,” I remember him telling me. The job would pay $1.35 an hour for 40 hours a week.
It didn’t take long for me to answer with an emphatic “yes.” I didn’t earn huge paychecks, but I enjoyed the work and learned about discipline, teamwork and following orders.
The veterinarian discovered I wanted to become a journalist and photographer, and at the end of the summer he gave me two professional cameras and lenses that he was given by a friend but had never used.
In a way, he helped launch my more than 40-year career in journalism. I’ve always been grateful that he walked up to me that day and gave me my first job.
Whether you’re a construction worker, a truck driver, a sales clerk or you labor in any other profession, you make a contribution to your community. You make your life and the lives of those around you better.
Hard work is how we improve our lives.
“Without labor nothing prospers,” the ancient Greek writer Sophocles once said.
On Sept. 4, I’m going to remember that day in 1970 when a neighbor walked up and trusted me to be a hard worker in his business. Then, I’m going to relax, barbecue and do what most other people do on Labor Day.