The View from HR

Finding meaning in Labor Day

August 25, 2012 

Does the Labor Day holiday mean more to you than a Monday off? It should.

It became a federal holiday in 1894 just days after the end of the famous and bloody Pullman strike. It was first proposed by union leaders in New York as a celebration of working people in the union movement.

Yes, the first Monday in September is a time to celebrate how far we have come in safety, work hours, child labor, basic pay protections, working conditions, benefits and on-the-job treatment. Federal and state laws now regulate (perhaps over-regulate) so many elements of work that entire law firms focus solely on those rules. Workplace claims make up the single largest percentage of our federal court system’s civil case load. Work is very different now than back in 1894.

Still, the history of Labor Day has made it feel more like a day of protest and solidarity than a day of celebration. I object to the idea that it is for working people and not simply everyone who works. Whatever “working people” used to mean, the edges are blurred today and the phrase is far too limiting. Whatever utility and influence labor unions used to have in America is now a shell of its former self, judging by membership statistics alone.

Freedom to choose

So think about Labor Day’s meaning to you. To employees at good companies, it means the freedom to choose a vocation, to learn new skills and grow, to be rewarded for your merit and to have pride in how you spend one-third or more of your day. It means the freedom to leave jobs and managers which do not fit. It means you live in a country where your occupation is not decided by your parents or the government or your ethnicity.

For managers, it means the obligation and opportunity to lead well is both a burden at times and a joy at others. Managers today deal with rapid change and gray area decision-making. It is easier to manage in a highly-structured environment (such as union factories in the 1950s) but also less-rewarding. Good managers and mentors are key to effective workplaces and should work to continuously improve their performance.

Change your options

For unemployed or discouraged workers, Labor Day should be a time to determine how they can change their options. Is it where you are looking? Is it how? Is it your skills? Is there an issue in your past performance record? All of these things can be overcome with a plan and the right outlook. There may not be a perfect solution or a role the same as in the past, but there is a good solution.

I hope we can look at Labor Day as important to all of us (not just a few). It should be about celebration and invigoration. It should be about reinvention. Join “all people who work” to make Labor Day as American and unifying as July 4th!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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