At a glance, Labor Day might seem like the most ironic of holidays. What are we celebrating? Work! How are we celebrating? By not working!
Jokes aside, Labor Day is a commemoration of the historical efforts that went into so many of the rights and protections that safeguard today’s workers. But with today’s work world in flux, what rights and protections will workers need tomorrow? How can employers and employees strike the right balance to keep workers safe and keep companies in business?
The history of Labor Day
Interestingly, there’s a bit of debate over who holds the title of “Father of Labor Day”, but the paternity question is not so much who’s the real McCoy but who’s the right McGuire/Maguire. The US Department of Labor credits Peter McGuire with the honor, highlighting an 1882 speech in which the young union leader called for a holiday and parade that would celebrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” However, when President Grover Cleveland signed the holiday into law, an editorial published in Paterson, New Jersey, credited the city’s Alderman Matthew Maguire as the originator of the holiday. Maguire was also a leading figure in the labor movement at the time, although it’s possible that organizers dissociated him from the event to avoid any connection with some of his more radical ideas.
Both McGuire and Maguire attended the first Labor Day parade in the US, held in New York City on September 5, 1882. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and President Cleveland signed the law marking the first Monday in September as a national holiday.
But what were they celebrating? Add on the historical lens: The Industrial Revolution brought jobs and productivity to the US in the 18th and 19th century, but there were few laws in place to protect workers’ rights. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average American worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week, not to mention a lack of child labor laws, protection against dangerous work conditions, or fair pay standards. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage, didn’t go into effect until 1938.
For many, Labor Day is a demonstration of the strength of unions and workers’ organizations. For some, as McGuire put it, it’s a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Others might generally associate it with certain rights and protections, like minimum wage, child labor laws, the 5-day work week, the 8-hour work day, and more. For some, of course, it’s just the last big holiday of the summer, a long weekend, or a time to shut down pools, pack up white clothing, and save money on appliances.
The Big Quit
Thanks to all of the historical efforts and struggles to protect workers’ rights, today’s workforce is safe from many of the challenges of the past. This doesn’t mean, however, that everything’s simple and easy for employees (or employers) now.
While many historical topics continue to be debated hotly — evolving minimum wage standards, workers’ rights to organize, etc. — the impact of COVID-19 has brought to a head numerous critical issues that will define the future of work and, therefore, the protections that will be needed to support the workforce of the future.
The future of labor
Technology has long been both an inspiration and a challenge in the workforce. Machines entered the workplace to drive productivity, but they also created risks. To keep the balance, safety inspections, trainings, and regulations were introduced to keep workers safe — from farms to assembly lines and all points between. Robotic automation has presented new opportunities and fears as well, not just from the sci-fi “What happens when the robots take over?” perspective but also from the “What happens when a robot takes my job?” angle. While most agree that dangerous and repetitive work is better conducted by machines than by humans, there are ongoing debates about the role that robots and artificial intelligence will play in the workplace of the future.
Today, technology is a huge asset to many working remotely. Even a decade ago, working from home had an entirely different meaning and connotation. Now, our advanced networks allow for high-speed connectivity that enables video conferencing, streaming, VPN access, and plenty of other cool functionality that means many of us can work just about anywhere. Every device is just another inbox, just another platform for connecting with your colleagues, customers, and others. Hooray! Right?
When technology allows you to stay connected all day (and all night, and all weekend, and all throughout your vacation), when can you disconnect? While we might be safe from heavy machinery, we now need to be aware of other risk factors. How long should a single person be staring at a screen all day? How can employers ensure employees have ergonomically appropriate work stations when they’re working remotely? Is it ever okay to unplug?
Today’s employee experience is under close review, both by employees and employers. We all want to attract and retain the best possible team members and ideally, we want to look out for them every step of the way. Employee churn can be heartbreaking, expensive, and stressful all around, and it’s important to have critical conversations proactively rather than just hoping for the best or waiting until it’s too late. Building a strong culture based on communication, transparency, and empathy can go a long way toward encouraging the sharing of ideas and concerns and avoiding unpleasant surprises.
Consider the questions you need to have answered, then plan the right way to connect with your target audience. From employee pulse checks to deep-dive employee engagement studies, a survey is often a good way to start the conversation or to inform further discussion. An always-on listening channel is especially important when working remotely, and it can serve as an ongoing online suggestion box in between scheduled meetings, surveys, or focus groups.
Labor Day is just one touchpoint in the continuing discussion over employee experience. Beyond the barbeques and the sales, take time to celebrate how far we’ve come and consider where you and your colleagues are headed next.