For most people, Labor Day is a rather vague holiday without the clarity and meaning typically associated with other holidays. Yet in its most complete context, Labor Day should be recognized as the holiday that celebrates not only labor, but also the ideas, job creators, and institutions central to the flourishing of the United States and its people.
Colonial America certainly benefited from the fact that early settlers were self-selecting people willing to leave the familiarity of their European homes and cross a dangerous ocean. Because they were tough and willing to sacrifice and take risks, these settlers were predisposed to forgo immediate gratification and to work hard. And they not only prospered but within a generation or two, many of their descendants achieved surprising wealth that in many cases was created from nothing. In addition, in contrast to today, what stands out about towns and cities in colonial America was the relative absence of poverty.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose ever-relevant classic, “Democracy in America,” pointed out that in contrast to Europeans, Americans regard work as “positively honorable.” In part, that was undoubtedly attributable to Christian influence in America. The Bible makes more than 450 references to the value and importance of work — specifically referring to work as a virtue more times than it refers to other virtues, such as prayer, faith, hope, joy, forgiveness, mercy, grace, or peace. Thus, it was and still should be widely recognized that work is good for the soul and necessary to a fulfilling life with dignity and meaning.
The idea of a “Labor Day holiday” was conceived in America in the 1880s by union labor leaders who sought recognition for the accomplishments of American workers. Labor Union membership peaked as a percentage of the entire American labor force at 26 percent in 1953. Today, the share of workers belonging to unions has dropped to a new low of 10.3 percent. What is striking now is how union membership among government workers — at about 34 percent — is more than five times higher than among private-sector worker. Since government produces little and is heavily unionized, while the private sector that produces most of the goods and services that people want is thinly unionized, it’s natural for many to perceive that non-unionized workplaces are more highly correlated to productivity than those that are unionized.
Few would disagree that the United States is inherently different from other nations. But even if the idea of American exceptionalism seems unfitting for some in contemporary times, no one can deny certain facts about the ways in which America is unique among nations of the world. The United States represents only 4 percent of the world’s population, but it has produced 96 percent of the world’s creativity and 25 percent of the world’s wealth, providing more upward mobility than any other nation. Little wonder that America is the number one destination for immigration, which is the most reliable substantiation of the idea of America as an exceptional nation.