Monday was Labor Day.
It marks the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of school. Some in Pike County will likely have headed to a nearby lake to enjoy one last outing on the water before the unofficial, official end of summer. Others will fire up the barbecue grills and count the hot dogs, porkburgers, and hamburgers before lathering them all in Sweet Betsy From Pike barbecue sauce.
But this day should signal something more to all working men and women about hard-won rights that form the foundation of the day we celebrate. While there is much to celebrate, there are also clear warning signals in sectors of the economy in which workers appear to be sliding backward in terms of buying power and of low-wage workers who, despite improvement, are still forced to work two and three jobs.
Unemployment is relatively low — just 3.4 percent of the labor force in Missouri — is unemployed. This is especially good news following the grim years of the Great Recession. But a confluence of events — automation, streamlining, outsourcing and other efficiencies — have put the squeeze on many workers in rural Missouri.
In Pike County, the unemployment rate of 4.7 percent continues to be well above the state and national average. Each month for the last three months, the Missouri Department of Labor has reported more and more Pike Countians are heading to the unemployment office.
In May, the labor department reports that there were 53 new initial claims filed by Pike Countians and the unemployment rate in the county was 3.8 percent.
In June, that number had jumped to 4.4 percent and in July it was at the aforementioned 4.7 percent.
Despite the mixed report on unemployment and an economy that is reportedly soaring and roaring, wages are rising slowly and even those increases are being undermined as inflation creeps up.
Meanwhile the Urban Institute, a left-leaning organization, reported last week that nearly half of Americans have difficulty paying for food, housing and other basics.
All in all, the reports make for a confused Labor Day, but one that remains well worth observing.
The first such celebration occurred in 1882 in New York City under of the direction city’s Central Labor Union. Labor Day was signed into law as a holiday on June 28, 1894. Unions covered few workers back then and, according to an article in Smithsonian.com, organizers wanted to create an event bringing together various workers. But they had to overcome huge challenges. None was bigger than the fact no government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. So, workers held a one-day strike, planning instead to march in a parade and then attend a picnic.
Whether the picnic was a blast or a bust, the overarching point was made: Workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job. Back in the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average, according to Smithsonian.com. Then in 1890, work hours dropped and the average manufacturing worker put in 60 hours a week.
Union organizers focused on the shorter eight-hour work day and days off, such as the one we celebrate today. Over the years, many Americans us have come to see such schedules as standard, though some workers — either for economic reasons or the nature of their work — will be on the job today. Hospital workers, police officers, firefighters, ambulance drivers and others merit a special tip of the hat today.
While the barbecues and boat cruises are surely enjoyable, it is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on what it means to be able to work — and to have a day off to celebrate it.
Until Next Time,