Labour Day reflections (aka Labor Day in the U.S.)

Back to SchoolLabour Day. The last weekend of summer. In most parts of North America, the Labour Day Weekend marks the “real” end of summer and the return to life’s routine (not to mention Labour Day sales). Let’s call it the end of the spirit of summer, even if it’s not quite Sept. 21. School is starting again, with kids starting a new grade or even a new school. Colleges and universities are welcoming their new and returning students. Few of us can’t recall the anticipation of the first day of school each year, regardless of how long it’s been. Labour Day is really more like New Year’s than New Year’s because our lives revolve around school terms, even when we haven’t been in school for decades. It’s a time of new beginnings.  This is when regularly scheduled activities resume, like choir practice, photography clubs, book clubs, bowling leagues, you name it. This is also a time when we get a chance to reset our routine. Maybe we’ll find a new course to enrol in or a new fitness class to try out or some new volunteer work. It’s a time of new beginnings, an opportunity to write a new script on the clean slate of the 2013-14 (school) year.

Source: chnm.gmu.edu

Source: chnm.gmu.edu

Most of us have pretty well forgotten the origins of Labour Day. Many of us may not even be aware of the fact that in both Canada and the U.S. Labour Day has been an official federal holiday for nearly 120 years. It was significant; in proclaiming this holiday the governments were recognizing the social and economic contributions of workers to the well-being of their nations. This holiday came into being at a time when the labour movement in both countries had been struggling mightily to gain workers’ rights. Things like reducing weekly hours worked from 65 hours to 54. Things like ensuring safe working conditions. Things like providing breaks during the work day. The things we take for granted now – in our countries – most of the time. We’ve come a long way. Now we watch similar struggles play out elsewhere.

Our Labour Day celebrations have morphed from a public acknowledgement of the contribution of workers to our prosperity to a public holiday acknowledging that summer has been divine but it’s time to get back to school. That’s a good thing insofar as this is largely a result of vast improvements in work conditions since Labour Day began in 1894. However, this is not to say that there isn’t room for continued recognition of the importance of a healthy, productive, and respected workforce in this day and age. Given the challenges in labour markets, especially with the high unemployment rate among young people, it strikes me that we should use part of the holiday to remind ourselves of the original intent of Labour Day.

Commerce is a complicated picture these days; it’s truly a global economy. In North America we’ve lost much of our manufacturing work to developing countries, which works well for the multinationals. They capture our business by marketing products at very low prices. We love buying goods at these low prices. After a while they don’t even seem low to us, they just seem like the price they should be. In fact, it would be great if they were even lower. We ignore the fact that we have priced ourselves out of manufacturing jobs by embracing getting something for (almost) nothing. In order to provide us with cheap goods, multinationals are moving from developing country to developing country, looking for places that have fewer and fewer protections for workers in place, enabling them to continue to sell us their cheap goods and still make a healthy profit. By clamouring for these cheap goods, we are supporting elsewhere the kind of work conditions the labour movement worked hard to eradicate 120 years ago, leading to recognition through the Labour Day holiday. I realize that those jobs are important to the economy of those developing countries; as I said, our global economy is a complicated picture.

We are living through a major economic transition, like the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age. As must have been the case then, the end point of this transition is not defined and the path is not clear. And as must have been the case then, undoubtedly there will be winners and losers. But we need to have a public dialogue on how this can unfold, and not leave it to multinational companies whose motivation is solely their bottom line, while paying taxes in whichever low-tax country they can manage. We need to be clearer on the overall impact of paying less for goods but sending jobs offshore. We need to understand how public policy can more effectively support meaningful employment for our young people graduating from our schools, colleges and universities. We need to understand how public policy can more effectively support the private sector in job creation, because there is dignity in work. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to society to the best of their ability, and that includes having a job, a job that pays a living wage. Surely there is no more appropriate time to encourage this public discussion than on Labour Day.

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18 Responses to Labour Day reflections (aka Labor Day in the U.S.)

  1. alesiablogs says:

    Hi Jane,

    I have missed hearing from you and your posts. I wanted to send you a quick note and wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. Alesia

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Alesia. I’ve been keeping a low profile; I’ll be back before long but probably not so often. I’m sorry to read about your challenges. I hope Thanksgiving can be a positive occasion for you.

      • alesiablogs says:

        Jane,

        Thank you. I am glad you are doing OK. I had not seen any writings and had suspected you were just taking a break, but I did want to make sure. I appreciate your continue readership. I may have to take a break like you soon. I hope to get back out with my camera soon as I really enjoy sharing my photography. However, I think I like writing more so I hope I can get on subjects possibly in the medical field to keep my mind clear of my own trials. It is funny though in that most people seem to enjoy the photos more. I guess because it takes very little concentration to enjoy.

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    Thoughtful post Jane, but I wonder if the days of full employment as we knew it has finished no matter how protective of local business we are. First Monday in May for the UK and Ireland but mostly people aren’t aware of the significance.
    In Dublin over the weekend they had a big celebration of the famous ‘Lockout’ of 1913 including a re-enactment with old-fashioned policemen running about bashing protesting workers🙂 I guess that a pint or two was involved as well.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Roy. If you are right about the end of full employment then it will be a tough future for the western world, since our youth are the ones who are suffering disproportionately. This means fewer young people able to get established with a career and steady income, hence fewer homeowners, fewer families, etc. And, by extension, fewer service sector jobs needed to serve them and fewer people paying taxes to support infrastructure and social programs. All in all, not a pleasant picture. I wonder if we can’t make our businesses more competitive in ways other than being protective. More innovative … I know, an overused word these days!

  3. I just read your copyright notice, Jane. I now wonder if sharing you on Facebook and Twitter is a violation. Please let me know if it is. I was assuming that since you feature the share buttons it is OK. But assumptions can be dangerous things. .

  4. I was sitting today and contemplating the start of a new school year as my 36 year old son enters a new university year (he has taken a well-deserved hiatus from a busy career to pursue a degree)and my granddaughter prepares for ‘grade kindergarten’ as she calls it. New beginnings, for sure. Thanks for reminding us that Labour Day is about more than the end of summer activities. Your post gives us all much to reflect on.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Grade kindergarten, I love it. I’m a big fan of new beginnings, at every stage of life. I bet a few years ago you didn’t see yourself as beginning a new career in the publishing and marketing business! Happy September, Francis.

  5. Heyjude says:

    A great post and I like the idea of this being the start of a New Year! Makes a lot more sense to me than January 1st. I do try and buy local as much as I can, fortunately I live in a town with lots of independent shops and can buy local meat, cheese, fruit and veg as well as support local shopkeepers like booksellers. Unfortunately it is more difficult to avoid ‘made in China’ or ‘made in Taiwan’ where clothing is concerned. All I can say is that I only buy new when stuff has worn out. I think it is a very sad state of affairs when young people leaving school or college cannot find suitable work, though I still think everyone can find some kind of work if they try hard enough and have the incentive to do so, it may not be what they are looking for, but working does instil a sense of pride in oneself and once you are in work it always seems easier to move on.
    Enough said – Happy Labour Day to you and all Canadians and Americans out there🙂
    Jude xx

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jude. Thanks for your input. I agree completely that working instills a sense of pride in oneself … and that it’s easier to find work when you already have a job. In Canada – at the moment – there are jobs aplenty to be found in the oil fields of Alberta; it just takes people deciding they are willing to relocate, leave family and friends, and live in an oil town in northern Alberta. In the rest of the country, the opportunities are scarce for most occupations. The problem with a lengthy downturn in demand like this one is that when the economy turns around there will be competition for new opportunities among the recent grads from the past several years. It’s a tough situation for that cohort, and recently unemployed long-term workers.

      • Heyjude says:

        Agreed. And here it is even more difficult if you’re over 50 too, yet they keep raising the pension age so older folk can’t retire to let the youngsters take over. I don’t know what the answer is, but this route certainly isn’t working.

  6. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. I think each of can contribute, in a small way, to honoring the value of work, by buying local. That way, we know where products come from (the raw materials), and we know who made them. We also know who makes the profit and benefits from our buying. Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jane. This is an excellent way in which everyone can make a contribution towards rebalancing how out-of-whack we seem to have gotten and have fresher food in the process. And aside from promoting buying local (or for manufactured items even national) on a regular basis, we could enlist Labour Day for a special promotion, reminding people of the employment benefits and keeping revenues closer to home. Thanks for this suggestion.

  7. alesiablogs says:

    I am glad to be reminded by your post of this very important topic. I am just thinking about the flowers dying off and you bring me back to reality~! It is my hope that we all can do well and have good paying jobs. I know the reality is not quite that way. It does bug me Corporate America has so much say so on anything dealing with money. I wish it were not so. Thanks for the post and the reminders of where we were and how far we have come.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Alesia. Thanks for your comments. So the flowers are dying off in Seattle, not just in the east?! I though you could garden most of the year! Here, both the annuals and perennials look very tired, even though the weather hasn’t turned cold at all. And some trees have leaves turning red already. Clearly, it’s in their genes! It is most decidedly also my hope that we can all have jobs that allow us to live rewarding lives, hopefully jobs that allow us to contribute to our full ability. If the job is personally fulfilling, all the better.

  8. jennypellett says:

    Well said – and very interesting, too. I’m back to school tomorrow, new students, new challenges; and so the wheel turns. Happy Labour Day – there’s much here to think about.🙂

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Jenny. Although I’ve retired from the classroom, I have to say that the first day of term was always an exciting one as a teacher too, not just for the students. So much hope for a successful year for all. Good luck with your students, Jenny!

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