Times Change, But The American Work Ethic Remains Strong

Many area residents strive in their lives to find meaningful work — something that gives them pride of purpose, puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. It’s a work-ethic twist on an existential dilemma, where workers ponder age-old mysteries without any substantial clues.

This is a fairly recent development. For the longest time, workers devoted themselves to a specific employer, spending all of their days there until retirement. And while this is still part of the United States work culture, it’s becoming rarer with each passing year.

Today, for a variety of reasons, longevity in a single career path is rare. Younger employees are emerging into a tough job market, often unable to land a career in their preferred field of expertise. As a result, they end up trying various positions and career paths before finding a fit. This leads not just to individuals jumping from company to company, often looking for better wages and benefits; it also leads to switching careers entirely.

And for many, the employee-employer dynamic has been transformed. More people than ever before work as independent contractors, which means they aren’t covered by wage and overtime laws and don’t receive workers’ compensation if injured or unemployment insurance if laid off. And while some workers prefer such an employment option because of the flexibility it offers, many companies have been known to exploit the system by misclassifying workers as independent contractors when they really are acting as employees and entitled to protections.

If there’s anything true in today’s work environment, it’s that there is no guarantee of job or career security.

Despite this — or, perhaps in part, because we dream of better days and a return to an era where employment and wages were more secure — we continue to honor the American worker with a federal holiday the first Monday in September. Labor Day remains a strong testament to the belief that hard work will get you where you want to be in life.

Labor Day — Monday, Sept. 5 this year — has come to mean the three-day weekend that ushers in the end of summer, but its history is important to remember. It is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.

It originated during one of the most dismal chapters in American labor history. In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average American worked 12-hour days, every day to make a basic living. Additionally, children as young as 5 worked in factories or mills, earning a fraction of adult wages. And workers of all ages, genders and backgrounds often faced extremely unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

It was because of all this, labor unions, which first appeared in the late 18th century, began to rise to prominence. Unions organized strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and force employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

What followed were strikes, strife, boycotts, damages and deaths due to rioting, culminating with Congress unanimously approving a bill authorizing Labor Day in just six days, a bill signed into law immediately by President Grover Cleveland 122 years ago. And the first federal holiday was born.

Much has changed since 1894, but it is still important to recognize American workers and what they bring to the table.