On this Labor Day, it’s worth considering America’s economic past and future.

Employment conditions now are night and day compared to a century ago. In 1910, systematic abuses had led to widespread unionization in the Pacific Northwest. At a time when large and medium-sized companies employed relatively more people than today, workers were too often regarded as cheap and easily replaceable commodities.

Thirteen workers were killed and 57 wounded when federal troops and marshals quashed the Pullman railcar strike in 1894, forcing Congress and then-President Grover Cleveland to create Labor Day as a reconciliatory gesture.

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 gillnet 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 along with them. 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.

Similar patterns developed in industries throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon State Federation of Labor and rural organizations like the Grange transferred strength to ordinary men and women. Employers meanwhile came to appreciate that happy employees are better employees. An appropriately paid and cared-for workforce began to be valued as consumers, shareholders and voters in their own right.

Despite current economic strains, 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. These are not good times for many workers or for companies. To be sure, most of us have jobs. But unemployment remains high, leading to intense personal struggles for the jobless and increased feelings of insecurity for everyone. The lack of jobs and raises gives our whole economy a pallid color.

Looking ahead, most workers understand that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get America back to conditions that create jobs, whether in large factories or in the mom-and-pop settings more common here at the mouth of the Columbia River. This translates into a need for moderate and predictable taxes and regulations, access to bank loans, Small Business Administration assistance and all the other normal underpinning of a sound economy.

Beyond this, we must demonstrate an ironclad national commitment to creating a path toward prosperity for our kids, recognizing that the assumptions and patterns of the past will not serve tomorrow’s purposes. Even in hard times – maybe now more than ever – we must fully fund public education at all levels.

We must ramp up our national investment in research and development of future technologies and business techniques. We must invest in our infrastructure to ensure the future viability of highways, airports, railroads, electrical grids, Internet networks and everything else we rely upon.

The major gains made by working people in the past century are not guaranteed. They will erode and fall away if not renewed and fought for. As we toast the achievements of our parents and grandparents in making the nation we enjoy today, we must take up the challenge to recreate America for those who come after us.

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