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CV Commentary: The Labor Day Blues

Robert Smith headshot
Robert Smith

The following is a commentary from Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.  


I can’t believe it. Labor Day is here!  Labor Day is meant to be a celebration to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. Many of us blur the importance of the holiday, and what it celebrates, and just focus on an additional day or weekend away from work.

This year, however, it may be a good opportunity to reflect on Labor Day as a celebration of labor (us) despite the COVID 19 environment which has disrupted all of our lives…and work! First, what is labor? Well it is one of the four factors of production in economic models. And labor usually includes unskilled labor, semi-skilled labor, wage-based employees and contract labor. Well, in my book, that includes all of us! With the exception of the unemployed. Of course, everyone who is jobless is automatically counted as unemployed. But many citizens are jobless by choice (e.g., stay-at-home parents, retired seniors, and students, etc.). Therefore, the unemployment rate seeks to measure everyone who would like a full-time job but doesn’t have one.

Is this really the time to celebrate Labor Day? Well despite the pain and economic hardships many families are facing maybe there is a reason to actually use Labor Day as a wakeup call to action.

Make no mistake about it Labor Day celebrates the creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. But equally it is a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

But many might suggest workers and labor are still taken for granted or underappreciated. As a response to the Pandemic, many large corporations are rethinking their commitment to labor (in terms of size and expense associated with salaries and benefits).  Let’s not forget, labor unions were created to address workplace concerns and rights in their struggle with “big business.” Moreover, unions have lost ground in recent years, but those are items for discussion for another day.

Whether we consider “labor” as an economic variable, or linchpin for workplace justice, no matter how you “slice and dice” the term, labor is really all of us! And that’s what we should really be celebrating. Whether we are professors, engineers, waitresses, store clerks, accountants, agency heads, police offers or farmers, we are all labor. Above all else, COVID 19 has affected us – labor. It has put us in the hospital, it has taken our jobs and it threatens our way of life. True, some have been more affected than others both medically (those with COVID 19) and economically (lower level wage earners) and that just makes it even worse.

My celebration of this Labor Day will be different. We are at the point when we /labor need some assistance. We need a vaccine, we need our jobs back, we need our employers to receive emergency COVID relief, small businesses need jumpstart funds, and we need rank and file workers to receive stopgap checks and other assistance as warranted.

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented at many levels. Our federal government owes the American people a solution.

Not many citizens are around who remember the Federal government mobilizing the New Deal Programing of the 1930’s that put citizens to work, jump started the economy and boosted markets and lifted us out of the Great Depression. Government, has and can and must play that role again.

And those concerned about the scope of government intervention might recall whether it is fighting a Great Depression or a World War, the Federal government is the front line of response to such profound challenges (because no one else can or will). Where is that resolve, that unity and that focus to fix our health and our economy? What are our leaders waiting for?

Thinking about the concept of labor this Labor Day may help us all understand why broad based action is needed to help us deliver the promise of a viable and energized workforce to preserve our economy and our democracy. Those of us who toil every day in big jobs or little jobs, part time jobs, or full time jobs, corporate suites or famers’ fields, remember we are all labor. Now more than ever we must celebrate labor, uplift labor and support labor and restore the value and dignity of work to help fulfill those traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate that Labor Day is a federal holiday, because that is where a solution to our public health emergency and economic malaise must arise.

So this Labor Day…let’s celebrate labor…and try to remember…labor is us!

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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