Archive for Thursday, August 28, 2008

Labor Day evolves through the years

August 28, 2008

Of all our holidays, Labor Day has probably changed the most over the decades. In fact, I wonder if the early proponents would recognize the event.

Even the idea of a day to celebrate labor was controversial 126 years ago when the first celebration took place. Peter J. McGuire is, by all accounts, the founder of the holiday. A leader in the Knights of Labor, he was also president and founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. You need to remember that times were far different then, with labor and management locked in a bitter struggle that sometimes turned violent. The Civil War ushered in the industrial age in the United States and that led to conflict over wealth and its distribution.

He suggested to the Central Labor Council of New York that a day be set aside to honor labor. The plan was accepted and the first observance was on Sept. 5, 1882. An estimated 10,000 workers marched around Union Square in New York as part of a day-long celebration, which included dancing, fireworks and political oratory.

Originally, individual states set the observance of Labor Day and the first was Oregon. The idea spread around the country and President Grover Cleveland signed a proclamation setting the observance in Washington, D.C., in 1894. Of course, all 50 states now observe Labor Day.

While the importance of work is still emphasized on Labor Day, the first Monday in September is now a time to kick-back and enjoy the final, long weekend of summer.

In the old days, well a few decades ago, school always started right after Labor Day. There were always events such as baseball games and picnics. Now, school starts in mid-August and football season normally starts before Labor Day. I had to chuckle when I noted that the Royals are idle on Labor Day. I understand that their labor agreement calls for them to be off on one of the three major summer holidays.

All this got me to start thinking about how labor has changed in my lifetime. When I first started to work, businesses were open all day on Saturday. The 48-hour work week was very common. When I worked at the newspaper in McPherson, we were all thrilled when we were able to have an earlier printing time on Saturday and the office closed at noon.

In the 1960s, when I worked at BPU, we had Saturdays off. However, when I returned to the newspaper business in Mulvane, we were open until noon. Thankfully, the Chieftain had been closed on Saturdays for many years when we arrived in 1979.

I remember that having Saturday free was wonderful. It gave you time to enjoy your family and work in the yard or around the house. Quite simply, cutting the work week was great. Now don't get me wrong, in the newspaper business I probably always worked 60 to 70 hours a week, however, thanks to computers, much of the weekend work was done at home. I worked long hours out of necessity.

I shudder to think of the "good old days" in the 19th century when a 60 hour work week was the standard. There were no holidays or fringe benefits. Certainly, the emergence of labor unions made life much better for all Americans.

If you read some old publications you will quickly discover that many didn't think that the common man or woman could deal with working less than 48 hours. One person said that in his opinion, people couldn't handle time off and would just get themselves in trouble. His idea was a 60-hour work week and Sunday off only if people attended morning and evening services. While that sounds bizarre now, it took generations for the mind-set to change.

Maybe I was lucky; I always worked in a business that I loved. From my early childhood, I thought that journalism was a great field. My first work experience was helping my dad with his janitorial duties at school. I started in journalism learning to be a printer and linotype operator.

I enjoyed the challenges and, yes, I enjoyed the hard work. While I can't say work was always fun, I never minded getting up and going to the office. The profession became less physical when computers replaced linotypes and hot lead. Next to marriage, your employment is the most important part of your life. It should be more than just a way to earn a living. In the case of our family, work became a way of life. Our existence was from edition to edition . . . there was always a deadline and things always had to be accomplished at the right time. On the other hand, there was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction looking at a new edition of the newspaper.

With all that said, I must tell you that I have the best job now. There is nothing better than retirement. I hope you have a great Labor Day and that the time will come when you can retire and enjoy another facet of life.

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