Today is Labor Day. One of the benefits of writing in advance for a blog is that there is a buffer when life happens. If I’m two months out and I have to spend a week caring for a sick family member, then I can do it and i’m able to maintain cadence with the blog. This, from what i’ve read and with my own personal experience, this is a critical thing. If you develop a community around a Youtube show, a blog, or a podcast then they expect to see that regular content. Your community members make it part of their normal schedule and the creator of the work will significantly disappoint people if they are looking for something that just doesn’t turn up in the feed.
There are negatives to writing in advance, and today is an example of one of those negatives. I completely spaced out on the fact that today’s post was going to fall on labor day. Considering that the focus of Peluso Presents is all about the collision between work and life, and the weekly post falls on an annual day of observance whose purpose is to honor the worker, I should have had something specifically written for the labor day post long before today. So I retrenched from my planned writing for today and started thinking about what Labor Day is.
The first thing I did was take a look at the history of Labor Day. Where did it come from? Not so surprisingly the roots of the day align with the earliest years of the modern industrial revolution during the period when America and the world was shifting from an agrarian society to an industrial one. For this new class of labor, the factory worker, their life was not easy. They experienced a work life filled with long hours and inhospitable and extremely dangerous factory environments. There days were filled with grueling work that never seemed to end. Don’t forget that the country didn’t have the social and educational constructs in place to help the average worker transition from a farm and family oriented culture to a corporate and production oriented culture. You can see where we would have a nation of workers who needed what we call today a ‘mental health day’.
Their is a debate on who first came out with the idea. It was either a machinist named Matthew Maguire or a carpenter by the name of Peter McGuire (no relation). Modern research points to Matthew as the person who came up with the idea first, but it doesn’t matter that much who came out with the idea or what the actual motivations were beyond the desire to ‘celebrate the working man who are making the country great’. Both men championed it. The Central Labor Union in New York adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and a picnic. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and shortly thereafter the first Monday in September was selected as the annual date. The early years of Labor Day celebrations including mass displays of workers and huge parades (people love their parades, don’t they?!?). It took a strike by a quarter million workers all across the United States, army intervention, and a dozen deaths before congress decided an overture was necessary to the labor movement which made Labor Day an official national holiday.
Today it’s a bit different, well except for the picnic’s, we still do those today. Today it’s more about the unofficial end of summer. That being said, labor day today is still a national holiday marked by addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clergy and government officials.
To summarize: A bunch of union officials in New York came up with the idea of a labor oriented celebration. It grew in popularity and then after a particularly nasty dispute between business, the federal government, and labor which resulted in several deaths, the government made it a national holiday. Cue a century of checkered table cloths and grilled burgers with corn on the cob served the first Monday in September.
But this blog is about the professional. Specifically the individual professional, what used to be considered the white collar worker. Where do they come in? There is nothing in the history books about the multiple layers of management striking for better working conditions. That’s because they had it pretty good in the day. Higher wages than most labor and better cushier working environments.
I can think of some areas where the story of labor back in the day has some resonance to the professionals of today. The first is that there is limited blue collar work to the extent that existed in the past. Unions are shrinking in importance because of displacement by a century of government regulation. Hey, if the government is going to come down harder on employers than any union for an unsafe work environment, then you need the union that much less. Ditto for salaries and benefits. The service economy has risen, and with it the majority of jobs in the economy have become professional individual contributors. In effect, labor today is much more PIC than factory line worker. Heck, even today’s factory line workers need to know some programming for the CNC machine. The lines have blurred.
It’s also safe to say that the programmers of Algorhythmic Management systems are concerned with employee giger welfare about as much as the industrialists of the late 1800’s were concerned with the welfare of their production employees. So if your lucky enough to keep your professional job as automated management continues to grow, the amount of pressure on you will continue to ratchet up. There currently is limited regard to what happens when it becomes too much. This is sort of like injuries on the job back in the late 1800’s. There was no mandated short and long term disability and what did exist was highly limited and only the biggest companies had it.
The rise of the gigger / outsourced / consultant workforce in the professional world means that the reset switch has been set. It was risky to work in the factories of the late 1800’s. Then a century of cultural change developed personal time off, pensions, social security, employer provided health care, etc. The school systems were developed to socialize the labor force and everything worked out pretty well. It was good to be labor. Since the 1980’s the pendulum started swinging back to more and more risk being put on the shoulders of the workforce with the professionals getting the brunt of it. (401K in lieu of Pensions anyone?). I could go on and on is that there are real similarities in 1880’s industrial workers and today’s professional workers.
It’s for this reason I think the real key to getting the most out of Labor Day isn’t to look around today and say “let’s remember how much labor has done for the country”. I think the real value in labor day is to look at why labor day existed, and see where that applies to today’s labor, a workforce that doesn’t just wear blue collars anymore. We should ask the same questions.. Who is shouldering the risk? Who is making it work out? How are they benefiting over the long term for their efforts?
Before I close out I do want to say one thing. I know that there are still many many industrial jobs in America (not to mention the rest of the world) that are grueling, dangerous, and have limited financial reward. Just because we don’t have as many of them here today doesn’t mean that the original purpose of Labor Day doesn’t still apply to them. If you are one of those people who work in those crazy unpleasant factories doing difficult work, let me say: Thank you, I appreciate what you do to make things for the rest of the world to use.
Bottom Line: Labor day can be a remembrance of the past, an appreciation of the present, and a warning for the future. That’s a lot to consider as we eat our burgers.