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Celebrating our ancestors' work

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM



The Labor Day holiday is purely and simply a celebration of work. And we celebrate by not working!

Amidst the barbecue and softball games, the beer and soda pop, this is a holiday that does not require a moment of patriotism, such as 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. Closing out the summer

Conveniently, this national holiday provides the closing bracket on the concept of summer -- although the celestial calendar says fall doesn't begin until Sept, 21. But generations of Americans link Labor Day with a mental calendar that signals "back to school" and back to work.

For every generation, the concept of Labor Day has a slightly different meaning. The very first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City, a celebration that was created 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 federal Labor Department Web site explains. And yet in some ways we haven't come all that far.

A century ago, America 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 mansions of the 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 at the bottom rung of the ladder.

Most 19th century immigrants came from Western Europe -- Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Italy. But America also employed thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers who worked in the American West to build the railroads that helped the country grow.

More than 13,000 Chinese workers had toiled to unite the nation, when in 1869 the Golden Spike was driven into the ground in Utah to commemorate the transcontinental railroad.

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 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.Tension is nothing new

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 a registered investment adviser. Check out Terry's answers to reader questions at suntimes.com, and click on Business. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.



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