What Does Labor Day Mean In 2022 For the American Worker?
Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of American workers' social and economic achievements.
Today, Labor Day is celebrated as an extended holiday weekend. Parades. Grilling. One conclusive visit to the beach or pool. Labor Day has always felt like the quintessential end of the summer. When most students return to school. And of course, holiday sales. Yet, there has been a significant awakening of American workers. What does this day really symbolize in 2022? There is no better day than Labor Day to reflect on the current employment outlook, how we got here and why organizational development is the key to effective change for the economy's future.
Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of American workers' social and economic achievements. The holiday is relative to the late nineteenth-century era of the industrial revolution when labor activists advocated for a federal holiday to recognize workers' contributions to America's strength, prosperity, and well-being.
American labor has raised the nation's standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known, and the labor movement has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker. - US Department of Labor | Labor Day History
The COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 caused a significant disruption in our society. Every facet of the globe, in a sense, halted. Halted in a way that we had not, since maybe, ever. Possibly, there were periods when societies paused out of necessity in a particular country or part of the world, but for once, the entire globe was on one page. The exact page, it seemed. The world was focused on one thing - understanding and responding to COVID-19.
Humans are social people. We are almost programmed to socially engage from birth until retirement. The day is a repetitive, consistent cycle from a kid's perspective. One must prepare for the day (wake, dress, pack lunch), to a roundtrip commute to an educational facility, spend the day with others in said educational facility, and reconnect with family (often quick to grab dinner and wind down). Then, you get ready to do it all over again, the same way, until the weekend. Unfortunately, this cycle continues. Adults transition into college and work just like this. Okay, maybe not exactly like it once you add on bills. American workers barely take vacation time.
When news of the COVID-19 Pandemic started to spread, many infections grew closer and closer to many American cities. Yet, no one stopped their usual routines - work, shopping, traveling, and social events. When hospitals were at capacity, death tolls began to rise, forcing countries to close borders. Americans had to be forced to stop their routines as well. Businesses and schools were closed, causing us to break and regroup. Although a reasonable number of employers and schools offered remote work and learning before the COVID-19 Pandemic, that was not the masses. Education, like employment, was cultivated to be in-person, like the industrial factory work model.
"You have two ears and one mouth." African Proverb
States began issuing mandates to stay at home in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. What started as nine states grew to 42, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This was a swift change from life as we knew it. Suddenly, everything seemed to slow down. The ability to slow down, spend less time getting dressed, and prepare for the roundtrip commute or day in the office, allowed individuals to breathe in new ways. Despite wearing masks, individuals became more cognitively aware of their surroundings, the way we interacted, and how long we were really supposed to wash our hands. We listened to the news but also had time to debrief with loved ones, friends, and coworkers and form new, thoughtful, and intentional opinions. Communication, both written and verbal, was provided with a bit more grace and concern for individuals who may have been impacted by COVID. Yes, some employers seemed to be micromanaging, but the employee working from home was able to take back a bit of power, using their homes or new workspaces as energy sources that helped them revive from the workplace. We also had more time to connect with ourselves, our passions, and our purposes, and according to the Pew Research Center, many priorities shifted.
Most importantly, disparities appeared where they had not previously been seen. Some worked in industries that allowed them to work from home; others were required or mandated to work because of the defined "essentialness" of their position. But we must also remember that several jobs were alleviated due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, particularly in low and middle-wage jobs, often within retail, travel, and hospitality which disproportionately heightens the structural racism that impacts Black and Latino workers. And, no one can forget out must police brutality became blatantly apparent both domestically and abroad.
We've Been Here Before
Labor Day today is more than a celebration of parades, sales, or the pivotal end of summer. Labor Day is a reminder of the unique positioning of the American talent worker. The world is in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where people are indeed the power. Technology continues to evolve the future of work in evolutionary ways, transforming how, where, and when work is performed.
Despite the fourth iteration of the industrial revolution, we've been here before. The first labor strike was said to have taken place in 1768. The first labor party was said to be created in 1828. In an article titled African Americans and the American Labor Movement by James Gilbert Cassedy, the author cites that before the end of slavery and the Civil War, there was documentation within the National Archives and Records Administration of Black caulkers who led a strike at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835. This was one of the earliest labor actions recognized regarding Black workers.
The inception of labor unions helped employees with work-related difficulties such as low pay, unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, long hours, and other situations. Unions were able to organize a variety of strikes and other work stoppages that served to publicize their grievances about working conditions and wages. Unfortunately, some employers retaliated against employees seeking union membership.
As Blacks were freed at the end of the Civil War, they transitioned into life during Reconstruction. It is estimated that as many as 6 million Black families migrated from the South to the North and the West during the 50 years of the Great Migration seeking better access to employment. Often this resulted in less than average working conditions and segregation from union membership. As the country entered World War I, work was made available out of necessity to both blacks and women, but they did not grant equality or hospitality. Blacks began organizing their union organizations to combat companies exploiting the situation of newly freed Black people in search of employment.
Did you know? Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what Black people could expect to make working the land in the rural South. - History.com "The Great Migration"
The United States Department of Labor was founded in 1913 to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States, improve working conditions, advance opportunities for profitable employment, and assure work-related benefits and rights. Significant labor laws that American workers can lean on today are less than 100 years old. Those laws include:
Two well-known Black labor activists are A. Phillip Randolph and Nannie Helen Burroughs. Asa Philip Randolph led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which after a 12-year battle in 1935, became the first Black-led labor organization certified by the American Federation of Labor as an exclusive collective bargaining agent. The BSCP had a membership of upwards of 18,000 Black railway workers of the Pullman Company and fought against labor inequality, unfair wages, and poor working conditions. In 1921, Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Association of Wage Earners, fashioning a creative agenda from multiple angles — education, labor organizing, and government affairs, as she politicked for the protection of exploited workers, gender equality, and the Black woman's right to vote.
"When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written." - Nannie Helen Burroughs
A Brighter Economic Future: HROD
"Companies are beginning to understand the massive impact of Industry 4.0 and the role of technology in fundamentally transforming business models and processes. The challenge is figuring out the intermediate steps they need to take to harness and realize the benefits of the Industry 4.0 future. It's not only about creating a technology roadmap, but also a business and investment roadmap for the long term." — Ram Jambunathan
Oh, Labor Day! The world does not just revolve around the business but the people driving its success. The brighter economic future reminds us that there is room for the talented worker, the creative, the genius behind the technology, processing, consultancy, and customer service to come forth. Changes in how the work gets done have sparked remote workers to move domestically across the continental United States to states and areas with lesser living costs. Some states are also enticing remote workers to move by paying them. Other countries have presented digital nomad visas to beautiful international destinations for remote workers who can contribute to growing their economies. While businesses presumed a company's name, title or salary would be the key to easy talent acquisition, the Pandemic and remote work expanded the talent pool. With the great awakening experienced for years by businesses and corporations which have reassessed their practices and policies, human capital has had the opportunity to do the same. 18 months and counting, to be exact. And with time to reflect, employees have reprioritized and reassessed their personal power, purpose, and position.
I've been in Human Resources for almost two decades, and there has never been a more critical moment than the present. Despite unemployment being a bit higher than in previous years, like the housing or stock market with a buyer or seller mood or moment, we have an employee market. Employees are speaking very clearly about what they want, and it is not all about wages but options. I can not advocate remote work for every position in the world, but I can say that the way we used to perform work from the "who, when, where, and how" has an opportunity to shift. And employers can both attract and retain the best and the brightest talent if they can think more fourth industrial revolution than the first iteration. This requires the ingenuity you expect from your human capital from the leaders at the top to rethink "the future of work."
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What does Labor Day mean to you?