A Labor Day Thought

Today is Labor Day in the United States and Canada (except in Canada they spell it Labour). Like most progressives I’m pro-union and certainly pro-labor. Part of that I’m certain has to do with where I grew up. I was born in Buffalo, New York and raised in one of its adjacent suburbs, Cheektowaga. Arguably Cheektowaga’s main street is Union Road and my high school alma mater sits on it to this day.

Not surprisingly Labor Day grew out of the union movement in the late 19th century. Folklore has it that the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882. Oregon was the first state to declare Labor Day a legal holiday in 1887. Oregon is still a solid blue progressive state. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894. That legislation was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland who had served as Sheriff of Erie County, (the county containing Buffalo and Cheektowaga), Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York prior to occupying the Oval Office.

The idea was to set aside a day of rest to honor the hard work of American laborers. Like Memorial Day and Independence Day over time it has lost its true meaning for most. It has become another three day weekend that generally has good weather and is a time for picnics and family gatherings. Labor Day specifically has evolved into an unofficial end of summer celebration and the point at which political campaigns switch into high gear as they sprint to Election Day. (Is it possible for the 2016 presidential election to eat up any more media attention?)

Before you get to ballgames, hot dogs and beer I’d like to put forward one serious thought that aligns with labor – apprenticeships. I could go on for pages linking the decline of union membership and stagnant (or worse) wages for American workers. The other tragedy is the demise of the apprenticeship programs and the quality of craftsmanship that they promoted.

In recent decades the premium in our educational system has been to get students into college. A bachelor’s degree has become almost the equivalent of what a high school diploma was when I was a youngster. There are two major problems with that: not everyone is cut out for college and many jobs do not require people to graduate from college in order to prepare themselves for them. While the engineer on a construction project needs a college education the person doing the framing doesn’t.

When unions controlled the construction trades a kid could come out of high school, join a construction gang and learn a valuable trade like carpentry over the course of several years. Five years as an apprentice or five years at the state university, (almost nobody graduates from a state school in four years anymore), what is the difference to society? During those five years the youngster was part of your crew, and you were responsible for the finished product therefore you had a reason to teach him or her well. Today sub-contractors often go to a spot in town where workers gather looking for day labor. The worker they have on Monday may well not be there by Friday. There is no incentive to train them; it’s just produce at the lowest possible cost. Where are the skilled craft persons of tomorrow coming from?

Before you grab that beer and settle in think about the social ills that could be solved with a good union run apprenticeship program! Oh, and for any righties who might be reading me today, the apprentice is a regular member of your crew and would have to be documented.

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