Being a worker in America today isn’t what it use to be

Published 9:33 am Monday, September 5, 2016

Our View

Labor Day has come to mark the three-day weekend that heralds the end of summer, but its roots are important to remember and observe.
The first holiday was celebrated Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City and organized by the Central Labor Union. Approximately 10,000 workers marched from City Hall and around Union Square, then gathered with families for picnicking and speeches.
Some credit Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, with first suggesting an observance honoring workers, but others ascribe the holiday to machinist Matthew Maguire, who in 1882 was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.
After repeating the observance Sept. 5 the following year, the Central Labor Union in 1884 selected the first Monday in September for the holiday and encouraged labor organizations elsewhere to celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” that day.
The first state bill to enshrine a Labor Day holiday was proposed in New York, but Oregon was the first to pass such a law, on Feb. 21, 1887. By 1894, 23 more states had done the same. That year, Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the bill establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday.
As we approach Labor Day 2016, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. Both candidates have mentioned creating new and more jobs, trade, raising the minimum wage, and giving women pay equal to men. At this point, it’s all campaign talk, nothing concrete.
Most of us strive in our lives to find meaningful work — something that gives us pride of purpose and puts food on the table and a roof over our heads. A lucky few are able to turn pursuits about which they are passionate — perhaps crafting things with their hands or creating art or music — into their life’s work.
Yet, too many in our midst have to rely on public aid such as food stamps and a welfare check to keep them going. Too many cannot afford decent housing or health care.
Older generations often devoted themselves to an employer and spent all of their days there until retirement. Today, for a variety of reasons, such longevity in a single career path is rare. Younger workers are emerging into a tough job market, and they are trying on various positions and career paths before finding a fit.
Unfortunately, being a worker in America today isn’t what it was a decade ago, and not all the changes can be blamed on the recession, though millions of people certainly were caught in its throes, economically.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data show that the country still hasn’t recovered fully, let alone returned to the heights reached during the late 1990s’ dot-com boom. Compared with late 2006, about 1.3 million more people are unemployed today and about 1 million more have been jobless for more than six months. Almost 6.5 million Americans currently working part-time want full-time jobs, which is 2 million more than a decade ago.
The July unemployment figures released by the State of Tennessee show Carter County with a 5.7 unemployment rate, down .3 percent from last July. Yet, 1,390 county residents are still unemployed, and this does not include those who have given up and have quit looking for work. While many Carter Countians are employed as teachers, and in health care, local government, construction, and business, many more work at low-paying service jobs and do not have the skills needed for better paying jobs.
The skills demanded on the job are changing too. Consider, for example, the computers that have been integrated into cars in recent years. Auto mechanics no longer start by popping the hood; they download diagnostic data from a port near the steering column. Not every worker needs to be adept with software, but those skills will matter for a lot of 21st century middle-class jobs, which is why pressure has built on public schools, colleges and universities to raise the technical competence of their graduates.
Clearly the nation’s workers — and large segments of the economy — are undergoing significant transitions. On the plus side, the long, slow climb out of the recession seems to be continuing. On the minus side, it’s still unclear exactly what we are transitioning to.
This Labor Day, we honor all working men and women, who have built the country’s infrastructure, uplifted our economy, contributed to bettering our society and who do their jobs faithfully without daily thanks or praise.

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