Remembering Labor Day’s forgotten workers

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Posted: Sep 01, 2014 5:00 AM
Remembering Labor Day’s forgotten workers

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

FOUNDERS: Both Matthew Maguire and Peter McGuire are credited with founding Labor Day.

Monday is Labor Day, and if your town is anything like mine, it will be celebrated with a parade of union members marching and driving their vehicles — many of them public ones, such as fire engines and dump trucks.

It’s a fun parade, if you can get past the sirens, the politicians and the noise of all the Teamsters honking horns on their 18-wheelers.

But hey, this is their day, right?

Not quite.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Yes, the unions created the holiday, and we can all be thankful to them for the day off. But union members aren’t the only workers who deserve “tribute” for their contributions.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members make up only 12.6 percent of wage and salary workers in Ohio and only 11.3 percent across the county. Clearly, a significant number of workers not represented by unions — something I’m sure the unions would like to change.

But perhaps the most unrecognized worker is the one many don’t think of as a worker:  the small business owner.

You know who they are.

They’re the local mechanic who fixes your car; the guy who runs the dry cleaning shop up the street; the carry-out owner and the beautician or barber who cuts your hair.

They are, perhaps, the most neglected of laborers, especially on Labor Day.

When I was little, my dad would come home from work around 6 p.m. He’d shower and we’d all sit down to dinner to discuss our day. Then he’d head back to “the shop,” as we called it, and work until around 10 or 11. The next morning, he’d be up and out the door by 7.

I was in high school before I actually realized none of the other fathers I knew went back to work in the evenings, or got up early Saturdays and Sundays to put in a few hours at “the shop” before enjoying the time off that others took for granted.

Holidays were the same, with Dad putting in an extraordinary amount of time working. And if he wasn’t at the shop, he would sit at the kitchen table with his calculator, pencil and piles of yellow paper working out the calculations for the then-new programmable CNC milling machine.

He was part of a family injection molding facility and we were reminded, fairly constantly, the reason we had food on the table, and why Dad had to go back to the plant each night, was because there were people there, working the second and third shifts.

Growing up this way gave me a unique perspective on business, especially in manufacturing. During the late 1970s, when oil prices skyrocketed, the price of plastic, which is made from oil, rose, too. I still remember Dad saying things might be tough for a while because he wasn’t taking a paycheck, though he said with pride he was glad he made payroll for everyone else.

As the president of the company owned by my grandparents, he dealt with boilers that broke down, employees who called in sick, toilets that got backed up, a few angry customers when the prices had to rise or when expectations weren’t met, finding new customers and bidding on their jobs, making the dies that formed the plastic parts, dealing with suppliers and managing the lawn, the parking lot and the septic system.

Most of the time, it was a thankless job. He had long-term employees who liked what they did and plenty of workers for whom it was just a step on the ladder to something better. When he had to close down the plant, he made sure every employee who wanted a job had one elsewhere.

There was never a union in the plant, though I really don’t know why. One once tried to organize, but the employees just weren’t interested. Perhaps they were happy with the conditions and treatment, though the pay wasn’t exceptional.

On Labor Day, I think of the millions of people like my Dad who either started or run their own business.

According to these facts from Forbes, the country has 28 million small businesses. More than 22 million are self-employed individuals with no other employees but themselves. Over 50 percent of the working population is employed by a small business.

According to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, small businesses accounted for “63 percent of the net new jobs created between 1993 and mid-2013. Since the end of the recession, small firms accounted for 60 percent of the net new jobs. Small firms in the 20-499 employee category led job creation.”

These small business owners — these laborers — are the job creators. They’re the ones putting out the help-wanted ads and giving the high school kids their first chance at real work experience, hiring the mom whose kids are now in school and rejoicing that a retiree with a wealth of knowledge and skills wants to go back to work — in their company.

They most likely won’t be in the parade. In fact, they’re probably the one covering things so their employees can participate.

But without them, there would be no laborers, no unions and no Labor Day.

So as you and your family celebrate the holiday, take a moment to think about those “other” laborers: the ones who create the jobs that give workers a place to contribute to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.