The idea of setting aside a day to celebrate the American worker is credited to Peter J. McGuire, a union leader who had founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in 1881. The following year, he shared the idea with his union brethren in New York City, and on Sept. 5, about 10,000 workers held a parade.
Why that day? No reason, according to Britannica.com, except that it was roughly halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, so why not?
Gradually, other states adopted the idea, starting with Oregon, Colorado and a few others in 1887. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making the first Monday in September a federal holiday.
As the influence of labor unions waned, however, Labor Day became, for more and more Americans, just a nice three-day weekend to enjoy the last gasps of summer. Parades and picnics honoring workers were replaced by backyard barbecues, trips to the mountains, and lazy afternoons lounging in the hammock with a glass of iced tea and a summer novel.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course. But this year, we think it’s important to give some attention back to the American worker and all of the challenges they face each and every day.
Whether you have an 8-5 office job that pays a decent salary or you’re working three low-wage jobs just to keep a roof over your family’s heads and food on the table, your day comes with its own specific challenges. And we’ve all had a bright spotlight placed on those challenges in the past 17 months or so, since the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in the Equality State.
On the negative side of the equation: the added effort that comes with social distancing, quarantining, reduced hours and being shorthanded as people have left the workforce and chosen not to return. All of these things and more take their toll on those who have continued to show up day after day to do the important work that needs to get done, pandemic or no pandemic.
On the positive side (at least for those who want to work): some of the lower-wage jobs are now paying more than minimum wage, and many are offering benefits previously unheard of in their industry. Sure, that puts pressure on employers, and it means we’re paying a bit more for some products and services, but overall, it’s a good thing. (And those that can’t pay more are finding creative ways to encourage loyalty, from more flexible time off to additional training opportunities.)
There’s much more to do, of course, including addressing gender wage disparity, work-life balance and employee retention, as well as moving toward the goal of all jobs paying a living wage.
But it starts with acknowledging those who fuel the engine of our economy, often by doing the jobs we take for granted until there’s no one there to do it anymore. Just as we did in the early days and weeks of the pandemic, we need to return to a mindset of showing appreciation for the folks that stock our grocery store shelves, serve us our morning coffee and pick up the trash we so carelessly leave in our wake.
Folks like the long-haul truck drivers, who spend hour after hour away from their loved ones, moving essential goods from point A to point B, while at the same time looking out for the safety of everyone moving around them.
Or the retail cashier who struggles to greet their 200th customer of the day with the same level of enthusiasm and pleasantries as their first, all while being chewed out for not moving fast enough for the person two customers back in the line.
Or the restaurant worker, who is on their feet all day, taking and delivering orders to the tables of unmasked people who may or may not tip generously enough to pay the bills.
And we’d be remiss in this ongoing pandemic if we failed to mention all of the health care workers – those struggling to keep COVID-19 patients alive in our hospitals, but also those who work in local clinics, addressing a whole host of issues, from upset stomachs to drug addiction, all while trying to keep their families safe from the coronavirus.
We could go on and on, listing such essential workers as child care providers, electrical lineworkers, auto mechanics, plumbers, farmers, wastewater treatment plant operators, delivery drivers, housekeepers and janitors. But listing them in an editorial is only one way to thank them, and there are thousands of jobs we don’t have space to mention.
What would happen if each one of us made it a priority to say “thank you” to those who make our lives a bit easier every day? Sure, it’s important to thank those in a military uniform or a veteran wearing a special hat for their service. But what if we also said thanks to the person bringing shopping carts in from the parking lot in all kinds of weather so we don’t have to?
Would it kill us to say “You matter!” to more people throughout the day? And isn’t it our responsibility to call out those who fail to treat service workers with respect?
After all, every single person doing every single job in our society is as important as everyone else. And they’re all someone’s child, parent, grandparent or friend. They’re no less important than you, they just took a different career path.
This Labor Day weekend, let’s all commit to advocating for all workers and showing our appreciation – regardless of their job, how they dress, what they say or how they act. Who knows? You just may provide the spark that relights their fire. And, honestly, don’t you long for someone to do the same for you?