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The True Story Truly Matters

I find it easy to remember bumper stickers. That’s no surprise; they are intended to be memorable. Here’s one I saw as a kid that always fascinated me:

This is an oversimplification of what happened, but it’s generally true that groups of workers organized and rallied for the five day week starting in the 1860s [1].

Likewise, the reason most of the country has the day off today is because of trade unions and labor groups. Labor Day was created as a holiday to celebrate the labor movement.

Today, our relationship with organized labor is far muddier. In the mid-1950s, just over a third of American workers were members of a union. Today it’s around 10% and is mostly declining. Plus, more and more people are skeptical of the value of unions.

In fact, I even saw a post today that read something like:

Without business owners there would be no “Labor” Day! Thank you to all of the business owners that get up and each and every day to make our country great!

Um, no. Labor Day exists despite the efforts of business owners in the past, not because of business owners in the present. But it’s easy to see why people are confused. After all, Labor Day is more about barbecue, the end of summer, and the start of school for many people. Images like this one, of a parade in downtown Buffalo, aren’t what we think of for this day:

There’s an open discussion to be had about the role of organized labor in modern society. Our economy is different today. More jobs require skilled work, and more people enter the workforce after receiving extensive training. Safety regulations are far more stringent, and there are mechanisms such as workers’ compensation programs and unemployment insurance.

But we shouldn’t forget why we have a Labor Day in the first place. It’s because laborers joined forces and used the power of solidarity to demand change.

Is it time to change the way we think about work, about management, and about government regulation of labor practices? Maybe. But it’s never going to be time to rewrite history.

Labor Day was created to celebrate the progress made by the labor movement. The truth matters, always.


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