Labor Day – it’s a time to honor those who work

“Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.”

Samuel Gompers, American Federation of Labor”

On the first Monday of September, 50,000 people on average, will cross the Straits of Mackinac by walking the “Mighty Mac,” a tradition for 61 years. The idea of a connecting link to the Upper Peninsula was suggested in the Lansing Republican in 1884, which is the same year labor unions began to celebrate Labor Day. It is fitting for the day that “honors the contributions workers have made to the strength and well-being of our country” is associated with the Mackinac Bridge, built by organized labor.

John Guertin, member of Boilermakers Local 169 remarked, “I was a punk on a riveting gang. I needed the money, that’s why I went to work on the bridge.” The average hourly wage of $4.50, would be $43.31 in current dollars, which is twice the $20.56 average of ironworkers today. At the time, union membership was at its peak of 35 percent of the work force, had leadership that were advocates for those that labored and a voice in the political process. As of 2017 union membership had fallen to 10.7 percent of the workforce.

The schism between capital and labor is partisan and bitter. To the capitalist, labor is a component in the cost of production that should be minimized. Labor’s position is that their contribution to value should earn them a reasonable wage and job security. In the industrial revolution, people worked 70-hour weeks at a 10 cent rate, with no age limits or safety standards. Labor began to organize. Tensions increased and violent confrontations resulted.

Unions moved the pendulum in the direction of labor and the result is that we now have standards in the workplace that many take for granted: the 40-hour work week, paid overtime, child labor laws, workplace safety, and other benefits, depending on circumstance. The brinksmanship is still there but tempered by the awareness that dramatic confrontations serve neither’s interest.

The modern workforce is different than that of the 1950s. “Shift work, tough work for the busy convenience store clerk, two feet that hurt, going insane, she is mad at some lad, drove off and didn’t pay for gas and he won’t be the last” are the lyrics of “Shift Work,” written by by Kenny Chesney and performed by George Strait. Something to think about as you pull out of a convenience store smelling of gas. The location might have been a service station that once pumped your fuel, checked your oil and washed your window.

Attitude is a determinant of job satisfaction, beginning with a positive first experience and eventually finding employment that supports and provides personal satisfaction. In the present, a significant portion of the labor force is faceless and without voice, creating discouragement. Enjoy the holiday and be thoughtful of those that work.

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in other words, for a life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Studs Terkel, “Working”


Tom Brindley grew up in Iowa, and studied journalism and accounting. He is a retired controller from Alpena Community College and has been active in local non-profit organizations. He can be reached at bindletom@hotmail.com. Read him here the first and fifth Thursday of each month.