The Labor Day holiday is purely and simply a celebration of work. And we celebrate by not working!
This is a holiday that does not require displays of patriotism, like the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. We have parades on Labor Day, but they're intended to commemorate the fact that people work in this country to build financial security for themselves and their families.
For every generation the concept of Labor Day has a slightly different meaning. The very first "Labor Day" holiday, celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, was organized by the Central Labor Union. (Two years later, the date was fixed as the first Monday in September.)
America has come a long way in the past century since the original plan for "a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations of the community," as the U.S Labor Department explains on its Web site. And yet in some ways things haven't changed that much.
A century ago, we relied on immigrant labor to do the essential and often messy or burdensome jobs that more established workers disdained. Thus we had immigrant groups that became the maids and housekeepers in the homes of "robber barons." Immigrants worked in the mines and the mills to dig the energy and make the steel that built America. As each wave of immigrants moved up the ladder of prosperity, more immigrants arrived to take their places on the bottom rung of the ladder.
Most 19th-century immigrants came from Western Europe -- Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Italy. Later waves of immigration came from Eastern Europe. But America also had scores of Chinese immigrant laborers who worked in the West to build the railroads that helped the country grow. More than 13,000 Chinese workers had toiled to unite the nation when the "Golden Spike" was driven into the ground to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah in 1869.
It's a sad part of American history that many of those workers who built this country were brought to America by force. Others came voluntarily, hoping merely to survive -- fleeing famines and religious persecution. None of those immigrant groups had it easy. But each grew stronger as a result of the challenges. And they made America stronger.
As their descendants, and on the backs of their labor, we celebrate Labor Day in America today. Their hard work created the most prosperous nation on Earth.
Today we still use immigrant labor -- and labor from other countries -- to build our economy. It's simply cheaper these days to import goods from China than workers. Americans still benefit from lower cost products made with their lower-cost labor. And Americans also benefit from the labor of immigrants -- many of whom are part of that centuries-old process, doing the work on the bottom rung of the ladder of prosperity.
As our nation struggles toward a rational immigration policy and a rational trade policy, we should keep in mind that this tension is nothing new. It just appears in a 21st-century guise. We've always managed to successfully balance our need to import labor and products with our own internal economic growth. That's what we celebrate on Labor Day. And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book,
The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need?
in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.