Yes, Labor Day is a time to take off from work and relax. We need that, so soak it up. However, this brief annual respite should also be a time of reflection and introspection–a time to think about labor in general. Each of us needs to celebrate the blessing of being an able, productive part of a thriving country. The holiday was enacted with that in mind.
As trade unions and labor movements grew in the late 1800’s, special opportunities to honor workers began to spring up in various spots. There was a big parade in New York, a state holiday in Oregon, etc. After 30 states had adopted an official Labor Day, President Grover Cleveland signed into law in 1894 the present holiday observance celebrated on the first Monday in September of each year.
This recession we are still trying to recover from has been brutal on employment. It has certainly given us perspective about labor. With double-digit unemployment for much of the past nine years, millions of Americans lost their jobs and were unable to find other work. Unemployment is a vicious cycle. Production drops because consumer demand decreases. When commerce slows, businesses lay off workers. Laid-off workers cannot buy sufficient goods and services, so production decreases more. The economy’s downward spiral grows steeper. The government steps in and offers extended unemployment which means higher unemployment insurance premiums for producers. This reduces production even more. Businesses lose, but it’s the workers who are hurt most in out of control recession.
That is why it is so important that we get unemployment to a manageable rate. That only comes with renewed economic growth. The unemployment rate is the percentage of the labor force that does not have a job. The labor force is defined as working-age adults who are employed or are actively looking for a job. Economists believe that an unemployment rate of 4% to 5% is natural and sustainable. There has to be some unemployment that accounts for those people between jobs. America is presently at 4.9% unemployment.
I believe the American workers–blue and white collar–comprise the greatest asset our country has. They are more important than our military, our natural resources, or our form of government. The work energy of our nation that produces the highest GDP of any nation in the world is our ultimate strength. That national energy is a direct result of the current 160 million people in our labor force who demonstrate a phenomenal work ethic every day of the work week. In spite of a few examples to the contrary, American workers are the best found anywhere. We must make full employment one of our highest priorities.
That is what we should be meditating on this Labor Day. There is much improvement still needed in the workplace, and we should be educating ourselves and endeavoring to improve constantly. But, let’s just use this three-day weekend to savor and celebrate the special gift of productive labor. After the long recession, let’s rededicate ourselves to our opportunity to work and value the work of others.