Paul Butler | Looking back on Labor Day

Paul Butler

Most of us think of Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, but the Labor Day holiday was originally created in 1894 to pay tribute to the contributions of the American worker. Labor leaders of the late 19th century advocated for the holiday when the labor movement was already flourishing across U.S. industrial centers.

Credit for proposing the holiday has been given to either Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

I come from a long line of workers across the pond. My father was a mechanical engineer prior to becoming a production planner. My mother was a school teacher. My paternal grandfather was a baker. My paternal grandmother, a jeweler. My maternal grandfather was also an engineer and my maternal grandmother worked in retail.

It wasn’t that much of a surprise then to see my brother and I also become workers. That’s what we’d seen and heard growing up. My older brother went into computing and I pursued a career within the hotel industry.

I’d heard of labor federations and workers’ unions as a kid but never in a favorable manner. Around the dinner table, I’d hear stories of what the labor unions were demanding rather than what they were grateful for. I’d hear rumors of strikes before my young mind even knew what a strike was.

Father would mention “walk-outs” whereas I thought the point was to “walk in.” It wasn’t uncommon to hear of big people working a “three-day week” because of fuel shortages. The adults called their two days off an “embargo” — a government order that restricts commerce with a specified country or the exchange of specific goods, quite often due to union issues. There always seemed to be so much strife between ownership and labor growing up.

Wind the clock forward about three decades and popping over to the other side of the pond to live and work, I now believe I understand the root of the problem resulting in us all being able to enjoy a long Labor Day weekend. I believe I understand the essential strife between management and workers, with management simply being the hands and feet of the owners. I believe I understand the essence of what caused the embargos that knee-capped a full employment of labor. I believe the issue was… ingratitude.

Ownership demonstrated their lack of gratitude in a multitude of manners. It has been a long, hard road to get owners to provide safe working conditions. It took them awhile to realize workers work best when they have some rest in between work. Owners became enlightened when the industrial psychologists and time and motion experts discovered that workers work harder and smarter when they’re incentivized by a pickup in their paycheck for greater productivity. In time, owners became more grateful for their human resources.

What I did hear within our family of workers was gratitude — before, during and after meals. My father spoke positively of the small group of 14 entrepreneurs who started his place of work — the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) Co. My maternal grandfather also worked for the BSA and being one generation older he was closer to the founders. My paternal grandfather spoke highly of the Hardings, who labored long and hard to start the bakery that now put bread on his table.

Both of my grandmothers exhibited gratitude for the jeweler and shopkeepers who went out on a limb to create the jobs they were working in. My maternal grandmother shined when she spoke of her place of work — Marks and Spencer, founded in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer. It didn’t come as a surprise to them when I began expressing my gratitude in time to Mr. Conrad Hilton and Mr. Bill Marriott for creating the hotels within which I worked.

By the time you read this, Labor Day will have passed but let us never get past exhibiting gratitude regardless of which side of the economic coin we earn from — entrepreneur or employee.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].

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