Labor Day, 2013 – Is Our Labor Still Valuable?

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in New York City in 1882, by 1885 the holiday was being celebrated in a number of industrial centers, and in 1894 Congress made it a national holiday.  There is some doubt as to who proposed this holiday for workers.  Some claim that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and cofounder of the American Federation of Labor proposed the holiday while others believe the founder was Peter McGuire a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Peter McGuire’s proposal did include appointing a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

Labor Day

Labor Day

In the early years of this holiday, street parades were common in cities and towns to show the strength of their community’s trade and labor organizations. Well the parades are a thing of the past and American workers participation in labor unions peaked in the 1950s and has gone into decline.  What are we celebrating in 2013?  According to the United States Department of Labor, Secretary Thomas E. Perez, Labor Day is a ”yearly, national tribute to the contribution workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country.”  Besides the doubt as to who proposed this holiday, perhaps there is now another doubt about Labor Day.  Is American labor valued?    Interestingly the statement from the Secretary of Labor is in the past tense.  Is labor still valued?  Are American workers somehow at risk?



According to the Catholic News Service, “The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families. More than 4 million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope. For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This jobs gap pushes wages down. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year. More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children.”


Just a remnant of the Great Recession?  Probably not.  Time Magazine reports in its 9/9/13 edition that “According to a study published by the Reserve Bank of Chicago, by the end of last year U.S. manufacturing had recovered 75% of the output lost in the Great Recession but only about 21% of the lost jobs.”  How is this possible?   The use of new technologies brings greater efficiency and computer technology and robotics is likely to further reduce the need for labor.  According to Erik Brynjolfsson and  Andrew McAfee,  authors of Race Against the Machine, “The root of our problems is not that we’re in a Great Recession or a Great Stagnation, but rather we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring.”   This restructuring is that computer hardware, software, and networks are going to get more powerful and capable in the future and have an even bigger impact on skills, jobs, and the economy.

WARNING:  If  your job involves learning a set of logical rules or a statistical model that you apply task after task you are ripe for replacement by a robot.  This includes not only jobs like issuing boarding passes and grilling hamburgers but jobs like completing tax returns.  Professional jobs will not be safe either.   Medicine, nursing, sales, teaching, stock trading all have aspects that can be automated.



HELPFUL SUGGESTION:  Learn the skills to migrate to occupations that are genuinely nonroutine and thus protected from automation.  Successful, productive work will be based on mastering creative, analytical, or intuitive skills.  Hair styling, plumbing, designing buildings, and plotting corporate strategy are all going to be difficult to automate.  And low paying work will still be available in jobs that are currently low paying and not worth automating:  cleaning hotel rooms, cutting shrubs.  Jobs that require working with new information and solving unstructured problems will also remain.

If this is the direction of the Great Restructuring, more unemployment looks inevitable, but we are in the early stages of this restructuring and we don’t know how it will evolve or what role we can play in its evolution.

OTHER PERCEPTIONS:  Many of the endeavors that part-time entrepreneurs take on are those that can’t easily be automated or that we would not want automated.  A robot tour leader?  A robot fitness or yoga instructor!!!!  A robot wedding planner that does the wedding photography as well?????  What are your creative, intuitive, or analytical skills? Build your part-time business around these skills.

yoga instructor Yes, we keep hearing and reading that “The economy is not expanding” and  “No one is hiring or creating jobs”  Being a halfpreneur does not mean that you have to work alone.  Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you hope to see in the world.”  You can be the one that hires the fitness trainers or yoga instructors for your studio.  You can plan and organize the garden tours or restaurant tasting tours, or the ghost tours but you can hire others to actually run the tours.  It is possible for you to be a job creator.

In this “Restructuring” not only computers will become more powerful but also networks.  We should maintain our interpersonal skills for in-person and online communication.  I suspect a personal touch and knowing one’s customers by name and preferences may become even more valuable for a small business person.  News already travels almost instantaneously, maintain high standards of customer service and honesty.

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr

If this “Restructuring”  is going to continue to accelerate the gap between the rich and the poor, we need to consider the consequences of not valuing labor.  “Work and love are the two essential ingredients of a well-adjusted personality.”  (Sigmund Freud)  We are currently seeing the stressful lives lived by the long-term unemployed.  But with some creativity and concern it seems like we can use robots or automated devices to do dangerous jobs and still provide work that people will find meaningful or at least capable of providing support to themselves and their families.   Maybe we need a society that will actively encourage more people to become entrepreneurs. Those who own homes, those who own their own businesses are more likely to be committed to their communities.

Those at the top of business and industry need to figure out that they cannot pay their workers like paupers and have them spend like princes”.  (paraphrased from John C. Médaille, Toward a Truly Free Market),   OK, we tried having it both ways for a while – an economy based on credit cards and unaffordable mortgages did not work out well for most of us.

Celebrating labor, supporting labor is not being against capitalism. “Labor without capitalism is unemployment; capitalism without labor is sterile.”  (John C. Médaille ­)






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