Koutoulas: Appreciating Labor Day

Published 10:34 am Thursday, September 5, 2019

I am writing this column Monday, Sept. 2, which is Labor Day. Today marks a holiday evocative of endings and beginnings.

It’s the unofficial end of summer for many people — the last long weekend for many of us before Autumn takes over. It’s a weekend of cookouts, parades, festivals and, of course, the ubiquitous sales of everything from cars to furniture.

The weekend also marks the start of meteorological autumn. It’s the time when our thoughts begin to turn from summer fun in the sun to cooler nights, crisp bright days, trees bursting with color, bonfires, football and everything pumpkin spice. Everything!

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But Labor Day is actually a holiday set aside to honor you and me, and every other American who works or did work for a living.

Traditionally, the first Monday in September was a workers’ holiday — back when most Americans worked in factories and other establishments which were able to close their doors for one day.

These days, when so many of us work in the service sector, weekends and holidays are a luxury not enjoyed by as many. But whether you experienced a three-day weekend or had to work all or part of it, you are still enjoying the fruits of the American labor movement.

I don’t think capitalism is evil, but I do think it is self-evident the interests of capitalists and workers are not generally in sync.

Without organized labor movements, including unionization and political activism, it’s highly unlikely the significant gains made by American workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would have occurred.

It’s difficult to imagine today what working conditions were like for most workers at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

In the mid-1800s, 14- to 16-hour workdays were not uncommon. Wages around that time in the U.S. averaged about 10 cents an hour.

People often worked in hot, dark, dangerous, smoke-filled factories with only a short break for lunch and another for dinner.

But the most shameful part of this dark period in American history was the employment of children as young as eight or 10, mostly under the same horrific conditions.

Some of the early leaders of the labor movement in the U.S. paved the way for the modern innovations many of us take for granted.

Samuel Gompers was one of the founders of the A.F.L., one of the first labor unions in America. He organized strikes and fought for higher wages and better working conditions.

He also worked with factory owners to help them understand a happier, safer and more prosperous workforce was also good for business.

John L. Lewis was another giant of the labor movement who built upon the work of Gompers.

As the head of another early union — the C.I.O. — Lewis organized millions of American workers and made significant gains for the labor movement. Widely regarded as the voice of labor in his day, Lewis is still considered perhaps the most influential labor leader in American history.

There were many other influential leaders of the labor movement in America.

But rather than devote more precious space to them, I prefer instead to salute the rank-and-file workers for whom this holiday was created.

For it was the Kentucky coal miners, the Detroit autoworkers, the New York secretaries and countless other unnamed and un-memorialized heroes who helped create the modern workplace.

Without the threat of a strike, workers have little bargaining power. When men and women are willing to make the sacrifice of committing to a work stoppage — giving up wages and risking their very jobs — for the long-term good of their families and their fellow laborers, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

So it is with deep appreciation to those organizers, activists and rank-and-file workers we enjoy such benefits as the eight-hour workday, 40-hour workweek, minimum wages, overtime pay, civil rights protections, restrictions on child labor, workplace safety regulations and so much more.

To these people, I say “thank you” from the bottom of my heart.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.