On Monday, September 6, our nation will celebrate Labor Day, a federal holiday since the turn of the last century. Unofficially, Labor Day represents the end of summer (when we return our aloha shirts to storage), and a time for parades, barbeques, and gathering with family and friends. Officially, however, Labor Day recognizes the contributions of all workers to the growth and prosperity of our nation.
These contributions are many and were hard fought. Looking back, they include achieving restrictions on child labor and securing the eight-hour workday, workplace safety rules, the right to organization and collective bargaining, and overarching initiatives to secure fairness in the workplace. On these achievements, our nation forged great progress. To elaborate on this point, we can turn to the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and 34th President of the United States.
On Labor Day in 1959, President Eisenhower noted that the increase in workers’ living standards provides hope for continuing national achievement. He cited three reasons:
First, we have a political system based on a deep respect for eternal principles; recognizing the worth of individual initiative; and guarding the fruits of individual endeavor. Through this system we seek to release the energies and skills of our people for the benefit of all, without restricting opportunity to a chosen few.
Secondly, we recognize and protect the rights of employees to organize together and to bargain with their employers for an equitable share of the wealth they produce.
And finally, as a Nation we desire an honorable and productive peace for our neighbors around the world. We want and we are working toward that day when the creative energies of mankind may be fully employed in mutual advancement rather than in mutual annihilation.
For these reasons, President Eisenhower looked upon Labor Day as a time of hope, a time to move forward and to look to what our nation and the world can become. A year later, candidate and soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy elaborated on this point. Of the labor’s activities, he said:
Their generosity and help reach abroad. The free labor movement has played, and will continue to play, an important role in stopping Communist aggression. Men drawn from the ranks of organized labor are serving abroad as attaches and technical assistants, bringing to the people of other lands a clear understanding of America.
President Kennedy also pointed to an observation by Samuel Gompers, the first President of the American Federation of Labor, who, in discussing organized labor, stated:
Its ultimate goal is to be found in the progressively evolving life possibilities in the life of each man and woman. My inspiration comes in opening opportunities that all alike may be free to live the fullest.
In addition to honoring the struggles of the past, then, Labor Day very much is about our nation’s hopes for the future. In this light, the staff of the Coalition asks that you and your loved ones take some time out from this weekend’s festivities to reflect on and honor, not only Labor’s important sacrifices, but also its commitment and contribution to our nation’s future and the prosperity of us all.