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Monday
Sep032018

America Owes Debt of Gratitude for Fruits of Labor Unions 

Dallas Morning News Editorial

For most Americans, Labor Day is little more than a barbecue-filled, three-day weekend that marks the end of summer, the start of the school year, and good deals at big-box stores. Alas, taking time to thank the American worker for the labor that made this country great doesn’t cross many people’s minds.

So, this first Monday in September, we’d like to do just that — give a heartfelt thanks to laborers across the country, without whom none of us would have a home to live in, a street or highway to get us to and from work, or the power and basic utilities that keep America working.

We’d also like to point out that today’s workers, like those a generation after the Civil War who first proposed a Labor Day holiday, are living at the dawn of an industrial revolution with just as much potential for economic disruption and opportunity as the transformation that gave us railroads, factories and eventually the electricity and automobiles that make modern life possible.

The first Labor Day celebration was Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, and was organized by the Central Labor Union, a predecessor to today’s AFL-CIO and other unions. According to the Department of Labor, there is still a question as to who proposed the holiday. Some say it was carpenter Peter J. McGuire, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, who first proposed a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Others say Matthew Maguire, a machinist, came up with it.

Either way, the idea took hold and was adopted by more than 30 states before becoming an official federal holiday in 1892. The workers movements that founded Labor Day, and later the May 1 International Workers’ Day, were instrumental in the establishment of the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week and overtime pay. Indeed, today’s demands for a $15 minimum wage, along with the large body of federal and state regulations to protect workers’ safety and rights, are the legacy of 19th- and early 20th-century labor activists.

Today, at the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with miraculous breakthroughs in wireless interconnectivity, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D manufacturing, nanotechnology and biotechnology, many workers in all sectors fear that their jobs will no longer exist in the near future. And for good reason.

A 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that “by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3 percent to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.” To address this magnitude of disruption, private and public institutions alike have to start educating and training the students and workers of today for the jobs of tomorrow.

This requires far greater digital literacy; continued skills upgrades for all workers, especially those in midcareer; a more fluid labor market, which requires better health-care options not tied to employers; and new infrastructure to support the new economy. When it comes to AI and advanced robotics, it’s important to note that someone must manufacture, market and service the machines of the future. And that “cobotics” — robots working alongside people — is already a reality in sectors as varied as manufacturing, energy production and health care.

What’s most important for workers, management and government alike is to learn from the disruption and displacement of past industrial revolutions and, as the McKinsey report urges, “embrace automation’s benefits and, at the same time, address the worker transitions brought about by these technologies.”

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your Labor Day weekend. And give thanks for the workers who have always — and will continue to — make America great.

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