This is the official definition of Labor Day, as presented on the U.S. Department of Labor Web-site: Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
To workers of yesteryear, Labor Day represented much more than just a national tribute to the workers, at least to those known as "blue-collar." It represented the fight of those in the trenches of labor such as coal miners, railroaders, truck drivers and all who made their pay "by the sweat of their brow" against the formidable forces of management, and who in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries fought bitter wars with the police, troops and hired goons to carve out a significant piece of the "American pie." I come from that tradition, both as descendant of "blue-collars" and as an actual one myself.
After labor had essentially won that war (wages and decent work-hours), at least in the heavy industries such as auto-manufacture, steel-making, and transportation, the fight was made in the boardrooms and on the picket-lines with respect to the "perks," such as health insurance, pensions, safe working-conditions and the like. Manufacturers learned somewhere along the way that the best way not to have their operations run by labor unions was to grant workers wages and benefits comparable to those gained through negotiation, arbitration and strikes, with the government often entering the fray. Thus has been the decline of labor unions to the point that now only 12.5% of the labor force is unionized, down from the high point in 1980 – 21.9%.
I can remember the tales emanating from the generation of my grandfather, a railroad brakeman who began working in 1900, about the striking, rifle/shotgun-armed railroaders lying along the tracks in a Tennessee village and shooting the "scab firemen" on the old steam-engines as the opportunities presented themselves. There were even rumors (probably true) that some of those "scabs" wound up in the huge fireboxes, cremated in the twinkling of an eye. In the coal industry, there was "Bloody Harlan" in Kentucky and other coal camps just like it, less than a hundred years ago.
Thankfully, all that carnage has disappeared now, though problems remain. Some reasons: Union hierarchies, like management, became greedy and helped drive industries into the ground by their demands, destroying their competitiveness, international and otherwise. Industry matched the unions in greed and joined in establishing the huge losses of markets. Particularly post-World War II, women have entered the work-force in ever increasing numbers. According to the Dept. of Labor, at the end of 2005 nearly 66 million women were in the work force, compared to nearly 76 million men (age 16 and older). The two-earner-household incomes (happening concomitantly with the wholesale breakup of families) that have resulted have almost completely destroyed any incentive for workers to pay attention to union organizers.
From 1980 through 2005, the population of the nation increased by 32% and the work force increased by 43%. During that 25 years, union membership, as a percentage of the work force, decreased by 43%. In the process, of course, productivity went up (still does) as technology allowed machines to replace workers. Even so, manufacturing jobs involving the highest paid workers have been steadily outsourced overseas, so that, for instance, steel, textiles, shoes, toys, clothes and myriads of other items are not made in this country now. Foreign automakers have seen the light and have set up manufacturing facilities in this country, but the profits head overseas.
The mantra in the society is a continual "c-c-c-college" hum, embodying the notion that every high school graduate is eligible for higher education, even if scoring only a 17 on the ACT (less than 50%). The result has been colleges and universities plagued with students who don't belong in them, but who actually belong in some enterprise that teaches skills, or simply in whatever part of the workforce they can function. The results of the ACT (national college preparation test) in 2007 indicated that only 23% of all students taking the test were ready for college, only 3% of African Americans. More than half the students entering the University of Kentucky, for instance, must take at least one remedial course, probably more. Many, if not most, of them become deadweight to the system.
The notion that manual labor is somehow beneath one's dignity permeates the society now. This is part of why illegal immigrants by the millions are working in this country. The eventual demise of the labor-union movement, which has enabled a man (or woman) to actually support his family and even send his children to college, coupled with the silly notion that only ignorant/lazy women choose to be homemakers, means that Labor Day will have less and less meaning. It's already just another holiday. The battles have been won.