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Labor Day then and now: what’s changed, what hasn’t

As we pause for the traditional end-of-summer celebration known as Labor Day, it’s worth reflecting on how things have changed for workers since the holiday was first observed — and how they haven’t.

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As with so many other things, Oregon was the first state in the country to pass a law creating Labor Day, signed into law Feb. 21, 1887, setting it on the first Saturday in June.

Working conditions in the late 1800s were horrific by modern standards. Workers typically put in 12-hour days, seven days a week to make a living, often in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Labor unions formed to pressure employers to improve pay and working conditions, and violent riots ensued, including the Haymarket Riot in 1886 in Chicago. In 1894, employees of the Pullman railway car company went on strike, and the American Railroad Union organized a boycott of all Pullman cars, crippling rail traffic across the country.

Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894.

Today, thanks largely to the labor union movement, the standard work week is 40 hours, safe and sanitary working conditions are required by law and enforced by the government, and many employers provide health insurance and other benefits in addition to a paycheck. That doesn’t mean workers are alway satisfied, however, and the reopening of the economy after the pandemic shutdowns has revealed a real disconnect between what employers offer and workers are willing to accept.

Organized labor is considerably less powerful these days as workers grew accustomed to enjoying the benefits obtained by unions regardless of whether they work for a unionized employer. But now workers are increasingly making demands on their own, without a union as intermediary, and they’re getting results.

Despite increased job openings, many employers are finding it hard to fill positions as the economy reopens. By the end of April, there were 9.3 million job openings nationwide. The August jobs report showed hiring slowed, with employers adding 235,000 jobs.

Part of that was the result of the new surge in coronavirus cases, which reduced consumer demand and Americans’ willingness to return to work.

There is more to that unwillingness than just the pandemic, however. Workers are increasingly dissatisfied with pay levels, scheduling and benefits. The increased unemployment benefits implemented to help workers who lost jobs due to the pandemic might seem an obvious culprit, but studies have shown many workers are staying off the job even though they could make more money by working. Several states already eliminated the extra jobless pay in an attempt to lure people pack to work, but that isn’t necessarily the answer.

Child care is harder to find and priced out of reach of many parents. Even if it can be found, it’s tough to schedule child care if a parent can’t find a job with a regular, predictable work schedule. And if employers offer benefits such as health insurance, it’s often available only to full-time workers, and most employees aren’t given enough hours to qualify.

Workers are increasingly asking for more from prospective employers, and they have bargaining power because they are getting multiple job offers.

Enhanced unemployment benefits are ending this month, so some recipients may be forced to return to work. But they still are unlikely to settle for the terms they were offered before the pandemic. Employers are responding with better pay and hiring bonuses. We’ll see if that’s enough to fill vacant positions.