Is Labor Day still relevant?

A lot of people would say emphatically that it is, while just as many would claim just as enthusiastically that it is not, especially in this day and age.

Labor Day, which, of course, arrives Monday but will be celebrated all this weekend, certainly is relevant in terms of it remaining as the unofficial turn of the seasons from summer to fall, of it still being the day after which we’re not supposed to wear anything white, of it being one final time to have a good, old-fashioned summer cookout before we begin moving inside for our meals, and of it being the marking point for the major league baseball pennant races. That is, the teams are in first place on Labor Day by a decent margin usually stay there through the last months of the season. Let’s hope that’s the case with the Indians.

But is Labor Day still relevant for the reasons it was established 135 years ago, and that is to celebrate workers and their social and economic achievements?

That’s hard to say.

Labor Day is a tough holiday to figure out in some ways. While there is no debate that the first Labor Day was on Sept. 5, 1882, as 10,000 workers in New York City took unpaid time off to protest poor working conditions by marching from City Hall to Union Square, there is no consensus as to the identity of the founder of this holiday.

Was it Peter McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (now known as the AFL-CIO after merging with the Congress of Industrial Organizations)? Or was it a machinist named Matthew Maguire? No one can be sure.

All we do know is that their last names sound the same when you say them.

Understanding that, then, the fact that there is no agreement as to Labor Day’s relevancy now, all these years later, seems par for the course.

Labor Day grew out of the transition of an agrarian to an industrialized America in the late 19th century. We are far from that time now. While the consumption of manufactured goods still is a huge part of our economy, we actually don’t physically produce many of them anymore, or at least anywhere close to the number we once did. That work has largely been shipped elsewhere for a variety of reasons, the discussion of which is important but it’s another story for another time. What we do produce now in droves, as if they are coming off an assembly line, are the concepts, ideas and theories that are integral parts of the manufacturing process.

At the same time, though, if this is the way we do things now, isn’t there still room for an organization to protect those workers’ rights? If unions were needed once, aren’t they still needed now, especially considering that there are still more than 160 million people – about half the population – in the civilian work force in the United States?

Ah, that’s the debate in 2017, one that will likely rage on for some time.

But it is a good – even great – debate, and, more importantly, a necessary one.

No doubt like many of you reading this who remember when cars had big fins, I grew up in a working-class home in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class community in a working-class region of Northeast Ohio. With that, then, there were a lot of union workers around, including both my parents.

My mom – all of 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds – worked 12-hour shifts in the factory at B.F. Goodrich in Akron in the early 1940s, being one of the "Rosie the Riveter"-type women who got hired by the rubber shops to help build the war machine while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting overseas in World War II.

When I was a teenager, I ran across a photo of her posing in the factory while standing on the top bars of a cart as she reached up to unload some material from a high shelf. She explained that she had been asked to do it by the union so as to prove that the company needed to provide safer ways for her and co-workers to do their jobs.

Nothing has changed. Industrial accidents can – and do – still happen today, even with all of our innovation to make things easier, faster and better. 

Nonetheless, whatever side of the aisle you’re on in this Labor Day relevancy debate, the holiday – the celebration of it – continues on, and probably will for most, if not all, of our lifetimes. For once a holiday gets placed onto our calendars in this country, it’s hard to get it removed.

Indeed, we don’t like messing with tradition. Labor Day is 32 years older than Mother’s Day, which wasn’t an official holiday in the U.S. until 1914, and 90 years older than Father’s Day (1972). So Monday’s holiday isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, regardless of whether or not it’s still relevant in the purest sense.

But there’s a part of Labor Day that’s older – much, much more so – than the holiday itself. In fact, it dates back to a time long before the country was even settled.

It’s called hard work – a work ethic, ethic, if you will.

That has stood the test for all workers in all different vocations for centuries. Ever hear of the terms "Puritan work ethic" or "Protestant work ethic?"

No matter who you are or what you do, you’ve got to work hard to have to become a success professionally, and even harder to sustain that success. Hard work – whether it’s physical or mental, next to a machine in a sweaty factory or at a desk in an air-conditioned office – does pay off. Anyone will tell you that.

Talent will take you only so far. It has to be combined with a little elbow grease and determination. In fact, want-to beats talent every time.

So, as we go forth, perhaps at least a part of the focus of Labor Day should not one be one of union vs. non-union necessarily, but rather that of the universal value of simply laboring hard. That’s something on which all of us can agree, and there’s not much left like that anymore.