Labor Day marked the end of summer in the Finger Lakes, the demarcation line between summer and the first wisps of fall.
The first Labor Day was actually celebrated in 1882 in New York City, an idea of the then Central Labor Union. It was a festive affair, including a big parade on Broadway, a picnic and, of course, speeches. Lot of speeches.
Parade banners proclaimed, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation!”
About 20,000 people filled New York City streets — a pretty big number in 1882.
The idea of celebrating the contributions of working people caught on quickly. By 1894, Congress declared it a national holiday.
It’s hard to say how much the public now pauses between parties and projects on Labor Day to ponder the contributions of working people. For many Americans, Labor Day is just another federally mandated holiday, a nice three-day weekend to wrap up the summer, buy back-to school items for children and have a family get-together.
For many retailers, it represents a bonanza of consumers who sometimes flood stores almost as aggressively as during Black Friday in November to take advantage of Labor Day bargains.
But there’s a grim picture in the present state of working people — laborers — outlined in a book published last month, “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor,” by longtime labor writer Steven Greenhouse.
“The share of national income going to business profits has climbed to its highest level since World War II,” Greenhouse writes.
At the same time, he points out “workers’ share of income has slid to its lowest level since the 1940s.”
Said more plainly, business profits have soared while workers’ pay just hasn’t kept up at all.
Many political observers have pointed out that the imbalance about which Greenhouse writes is one of the things that helps fuel support for President Donald Trump. Low pay, few if any raises and media reports about soaring corporate profits and nearly unimaginably high CEO salaries make for a very cranky electorate.
Which brings us to labor unions.
While unions have fallen in influence and membership — just slightly over 10 percent of all workers are union members today compared to 35 percent in the mid 1950s — unions should be celebrated on Labor Day for their historical contributions.
The Greenhouse book details how labor unions were in good part responsible for workplace condition improvements and worker salary gains after passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, best known as the Wagner Act after U.S. Sen. Robert Wagner.
The Wagner Act and other helpful-to-unions legislation are generally credited with helping real wages double in the decades after World War II.
And with that was the ushering in of middle-class prosperity, prosperity that is slipping away today.
Union membership and influence has fallen sharply in recent decades due to concerted efforts by corporations and elected political allies, as well as companies using offshore manufacturing.
But union strength remains strong in the public sector.
In many U.S. communities, police, firemen, school teachers, university professors, nurses, and a raft of government workers are unionized, bargain collectively and have managed to hang onto some the worker prosperity and job security that President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned for the nation when he pushed New Deal legislation and the Wagner Act.
Even defined-benefit retirement plans that have all but disappeared from private industry remain in place for many unionized public employees.
As much criticism that is leveled at labor unions these days, it would behoove us all to remember their enormous contribution to creating a more comfortable life for many of us who consider ourselves “middle class.”