Today is Labor Day, but Labor Day is not the way it used to be — not the way it was back in the 1950s when I was a young adult breaking into the world of work.
I remember that Labor Day was the last day before school started. Children were looking forward to the start of school for better or worse. Children enjoyed this last day of freedom.
Now, we start school in the middle of August, and by Labor Day children are back in the routine. Labor Day is just another day off like Columbus Day.
I remember Labor Day picnics — little picnics with neighbors and big picnics of union groups, ethnic groups and church groups.
I don’t think there are so many picnics today. Maybe it is in part because picnics are outdoor events, and air conditioning keeps us inside.
I remember Labor Day was a day when all Major League Baseball teams played doubleheaders. Conventional wisdom was that the teams that were in first place on Labor Day would win the pennant and be in the World Series.
Now, few, If any baseball teams play doubleheaders on Labor Day, and baseball’s playoff system makes it impossible to tell on Labor Day who will be in the World Series. Labor Day is just one of 162 days of baseball.
I remember that in presidential election years, Labor Day was the day the campaigns began. That usually meant a speech by the Democratic candidate for president in Detroit and one by the Republican candidate from his home state.
Now, the campaign is in full swing, a year before Labor Day of election year. The two-month campaign has been replaced by the seemingly unending 20-month campaign.
I remember a 1955 song about labor — Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “Sixteen Tons.” It was about a coal miner, and it began “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”
I don’t hear songs that moving about labor nowadays.
Why is Labor Day less important?
Well, Labor Day was created by the unions, and unions are less important. In the 1950s, there were about 17 million union members. Today, it is about 14 million. That is not very much less, but the 17 million was 31 percent of the work force while the 14 million now is 12 percent of the work force.
Furthermore, the 17 million was a huge increase from the 3 million two decades earlier before the Wagner Act was passed.
Workers are less important, less respected. In the 1950s, companies had a commitment to the community and to the workers who were part of it.
Business leaders were eager to support and lead the United Appeal, to create parks, to sponsor community events. Some still are, but some are eager to displace local workers with workers in the South or Mexico or India. That people who have worked for the company for 30 years lose their jobs doesn’t matter.
Workers are not paid as well. You have heard politicians talking about helping the middle class. That’s workers — workers who are not getting paid as well as they used to, who are not sharing equitably in the wealth they have helped create.
We have 15 million workers who work full-time, but get food stamps because their pay is not enough to enable then to feed their families.
Is it any wonder that I long for those old-time Labor Days?
Guido H. Stempel III is a distinguished professor emeritus of journalism at Ohio University. Professor Stempel has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Wisconsin and a master's in journalism from Indiana University. He has been on the Ohio University faculty since 1965 and served as director and graduate chairman of the journalism school, director of the Bush Research Endowment, and director of the Scripps Survey Research Center. He is a columnist for The Athens Messenger and The Highland County Press.