When Labor Day was born in 1883, the holiday was a big deal for workers. And that was an America rife with large factories and their assembly lines. In ways we can hardly imagine, industrialists including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison introduced innovations and new techniques that transformed an essentially agrarian society into an urban one.
Compare old photographs of workers from a century ago with people today and it becomes apparent that Americans ourselves have changed in amazing ways, growing both upward and in circumference. Today, even the poorest among us are better fed and far more advantaged than average citizens were at the start of the modern labor movement.
Positive changes don’t occur spontaneously. Individual men and women, working with intelligence and tenacity, deserve our gratitude for incrementally making the United States a nation which, for all its flaws, is still the wonder of our age. Last year’s contentious election, whatever one thinks of the outcome, brought a sharp focus on problems faced by working Americans and the ways in which we need to renew our commitments to ensuring decent pay for decent work.
While all manner of things have changed, the idea of honoring labor remains an honorable aspect of this nation. Ultimately, those toiling in anonymity are far more worthy of our thanks than the famous captains of industry. Our families exist because of the labor of our parents and grandparents.
Here on the Lower Columbia River, the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union was perhaps the most visible of several active organizations that struggled to level the scales of economic and political power on behalf of laborers. It wasn’t unusual for multiple men to die each season in the small, open fishing boats of that era. Meanwhile, fishermen vied with salmon packers over a penny or two per pound for the big Chinook that were the foundation of our economy.
The power of local companies and workers ebbed and flowed over the years. In bad times like the 1930s, many companies failed and the jobs they provided disappeared. Firms that survived were often the ones with the best long-term partnerships with fishermen and canning workers. These companies looked after employees and their employees returned the favor.
This collaboration between labor and capital in bringing about success is still robust in places like the communities of the Lower Columbia. The owners of companies on the scale that prosper here understand that good workers are absolutely indispensable. And workers here are close enough to the front lines of capitalism to seldom take their jobs for granted.
These partnerships between employers and employees are at risk in the giant corporations that wield so much power in the nation beyond our cherished coast. The thought of companies transferring their real or symbolic headquarters to foreign nations in order to deprive the U.S. of tax revenue should revolt us all. Citizenship — whether by individuals or corporations — is a two-way street. Those who prosper thanks to the advantages created by our great nation must in turn be willing to help pay for it. Corporations that enjoy the protections of American laws, shouldn’t wiggle out of tax obligations by moving their symbolic legal residence to another nation. President Donald Trump and other leaders are right to speak out about the need for better corporate citizenship — but must match meaningful actions with their stirring rhetoric.
Our economy has been transformed in recent decades. Economic recovery has been uneven, delivering far more wealth to a few, while most Americans work within the context of a globalized labor market that tends to keep wages down. This has created feelings of anger and insecurity that were greatly reflected in last year’s presidential politics. Now, we must take steps to address these concerns. Even so, working conditions and job fairness are a quantum leap better than they were in our grandparents’ time. All Americans living today still benefit from the transformations in labor laws and attitudes that came to permeate 20th-century society.
Although you don’t have to look far to uncover derogatory attitudes toward unions, the fair-employment initiatives that were led by organized labor groups are key to everything from minimum wages, bars on child labor, safe working conditions, employer-provided health insurance and a host of other things we take for granted.
In good times, some Americans consider labor rights and organizations to be sort of expensive extravagances. But even as the overall economy continues to improve, it still behooves Americans and our leaders to empower labor in ways that ensure future economic health, and a balance of power between corporations and everyday citizens.
Families struggle to pay for the education children require for the technologically demanding jobs of the future. Health care, once one of the near-certainties of middle-class employment, remains a source of worry. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, personal financial well-being still seems less secure than it was half a century ago. For these reasons and more, it’s important we always pay attention to the details of working life.
The victories of the past can leak away when we’re not watching.