For many Americans this year, the very concept of a federal holiday for Labor Day might seem like a cruel joke. Labor Day is supposed to be a break from the grind, a time to celebrate workers, but considering the high unemployment rate, many jobless Americans would probably prefer to be working instead. But what is point of this holiday? And what should workers -- and perhaps politicians -- be thinking about on this day?
1. The holiday grew from workers' protests.
The vacation day exists thanks to a hard-earned victory from the Progressive Era. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in America and a financial crisis in 1873 motivated workers to push for more rights. Among their mottoes: "Less Work and More Pay," "To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth" and "Labor Built This Republic, Labor Shall Rule It." Their conditions back then were no doubt rough: 12-hour workdays and no weekends. (Both wounded up being changed by law as a result of Progressive Era activism.)
In 1882, workers began organizing an annual day of action and picnics, and 10,000 people marched on Broadway Avenue in New York toward Union Square. For President Grover Cleveland, creating a national holiday in 1894 was one way he could gain favor shortly after crushing a strike among railroad workers.
2. Workers were empowered, thanks to the New Deal.
Eighty years after Franklin Roosevelt became president, the New Deal remains controversial. Was heavy government intrusion into the economy the right decision? This is the kind of debate that our presidential candidates are still having. But what is undeniable is that workers emerged from the Great Depression with a slew of new rights. Workers were given the right to join a union, and the National Labor Relations Board was established to allow workers to have a forum to try and rectify unfair labor practices.
The NLRB was also empowered with forcing employers to provide back-pay when employers refused to pay out. And new laws limited the powers of federal courts to stop strikes. Lastly, the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 capped the workweek at 44 hours and established the first minimum wage at 25-cents per hour.
3. The American workforce isn't growing.
From 1975 to 2009, the U.S. population grew steadily, and so did the number of people in the national workforce. Back in '75, there were about 150 million U.S. residents of working age, with 90 million of them actually working. The figures creeped up throughout the last quarter of the 20th century until 154 million Americans were counted as members of the workforce. But in the wake of the economic crisis, with unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, the size of the labor force has "stagnated" and "peaked" at its '09 high,
And this comes as the overall population continues to grow. The study also points out that much of the improvement on the unemployment front since the beginning of the crisis has had less to do with actual job creation, and more to do with "people leaving the workforce." Finally, to make matters worse, the majority of new jobs that have been added during the recovery were considered "low-wage" positions, according to research by the National Employment Law Project.
4. Union membership is on the decline.
What group of Americans has shrunk by two-thirds since 1950? One answer is the number of unionized Americans, whose participation rate stood at 32 percent in the middle of last century, and now clocks in at 11.9 percent in the most recent census. Have workers stopped caring for their rights? Have unions been systematically weakened by employers? Or have unions become irrelevant?
Theories run the gamut. But most agree that the emergence of a globalized workforce has weakened domestic unions by offering employers cheaper overseas workers. Indeed, in order to succeed, the labor movement of the future must be "profoundly international in nature, and will have to make big strides in China before it has any real effect in the U.S.," Reuters' financial blogger Felix Salmon notes.
5. Fewer Americans work in offices, anyway.
The day off from work means a chance to catch up on yard work, but at least that's still better than hitting the rush-hour commute -- except for the fact that Americans in increasing numbers aren't leaving their houses anymore to clock in for the workday. A report last year from IDC consultancy says American telecommuters will rise by about 12 percent to about 9.5 million by 2015, as was reported by DailyFinance.
And despite the bad rap that working in pajamas may have among well-respected men trudging off to the office each day, some say that making the bedroom the corner office can also improve efficiency. A study run by Stanford University last year found that call center employees for a Shanghai-based airfare and ticketing office made 15 percent more calls when they didn't have to go into the office.
6. Women still are behind.
The financial crisis has been nicknamed the "mancession" for the gutting of classically male jobs and reduced male employment. But even if more women are expected to pay the bills, the pay gap is alive and well: Women earned 77 percent of what men did in annual pay for the exact same work in 2010, when the stat was last measured. The "silent offense," in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek, was supposed to be eradicated during the administration of John F. Kennedy with the 1963 Equal Pay Act.
Activists are under little illusion as to why America was able to land a man on the moon back in 1960s but not ensure that male and females received the same number of space bars. "Transparency doesn't kill anyone," Ariane Hegewisch, the study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, told AOL Jobs in an interview last year. She says research shows that when salaries are made public an employer is much less likely to be able to get away with unequal wages.
7. Why you can't wear white after Labor Day.
It's among the original sins of classical American fashion -- wearing white after Labor Day. But why? The origin of the moratorium against the pale tone come autumn is actually not entirely clear. What is known is that the custom took root in the early 20th century, and was promoted in the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue for practical reasons: When you wear white amid mud-inducing fall rains, you're likely to pick up a smudge or two on your favorite white skirt. But other historians ascribe the ban to class issues.
According to Time magazine, the whites-only custom "provided old-money elites with a bulwark against the upwardly mobile" in the conformist 1950s. And who helped to further propagate the more? The "outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules," said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
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