Locked On Labor

Labor Day Workers

Photo by Bob Bennett, used with permission under CC license

As I sit here, enjoying our temperate San Diego weather, contemplating our 3-day weekend, I can’t help but think that as much as Labor Day is a celebration of organized labor it is simultaneously a condemnation of business leadership.  Most people believe that Labor Day is a celebration of the American worker where, in fact, it is a celebration of Labor Unions.

Labor Day is the creation of organized labor.  The year’s holiday falls exactly 134 years to the day from the first celebration in New York City on September 5, 1882.  The original celebration was the creation of the Central Labor Union.  Five years later, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize Labor Day as a holiday and in 1894 the United States Congress enacted a bill to make Labor Day an official U.S. holiday.

Failure in Business Leadership Leads to Labor Day


So why is Labor Day a condemnation of management?  The labor movement was a direct result of poor and abusive management policies.  Business leaders recognized that the labor pool was a captive resource.  Before the advent of the automobile we were restricted to working relatively close to home.  Long hours at the factory, mill, mine or farmstead made long commutes even less viable and business owners took advantage of their captive labor pool’s need to work.  As a result, workers banded together and formed unions that supported each other.  Union leaders recognized that human capital was the most expensive cost to the employer and leveraged their position to make working conditions better.

In 1882 it would take about 6 weeks to get across the country.  A worker would need to have enough resources, money and / or supplies, to make the trip or have the ability to forage for themselves.  While many did “go west” countless more remained in place where they had family, friends and a support structure.  Once they got to their final destination they had to find work.

Today an unhappy employee can find work anywhere without leaving their home.  Not only do we have instantaneous voice communications with the telephone, we have visual communication as well with the advent of Skype and other video conference services.  Both facilitate long distance interviews so you can secure a new job before loading up your Conestoga Wagon.  Just look at the boom in North Dakota during the recent oil rush.  In Willston ND the population more than quadrupled from 15,000 over 60,000.  Workers flocked to good jobs and good pay from all over the country.

So how do we make sure we keep our good employees?

The Secrets to Keeping Good Employees


  • Empower your employees – allow them to make decisions, ask their opinions on the best way to do things. Find out what they need to make them more productive.  You may not be able to provide everything they ask for but by engaging them they will feel valued.  Furthermore, you will be able to see who has the company’s interest in mind and identify future leaders.
  • Make sure your employees are doing the work they enjoy doing – Frequently people take work because they need a paycheck.  It is your job as a manger or owner that the right person is doing the right job.  We are all fulfilled by different things.  If the job isn’t intrinsically fulfilling to the person doing the work, then they will be ultimately unsatisfied and not perform at their best.  This doesn’t mean you don’t make employees do things they don’t enjoy but it does mean that overall they should find more of their tasks rewarding.
  • Hold Employees Accountable – For some this seems counterintuitive. Some of the most frustrated business owners I’ve met are the nicest.  They are afraid that an employee might leave so they won’t hold them accountable.  This sends a subliminal message that standards are not important.  This usually results in the good employees leaving while the bad ones stick around, net result is poor production and efficiency.  When you hold employees accountable 2/3 will be self-correcting, i.e. 1/3 will improve and 1/3 will leave and become someone else’s problem.  That only leaves you with 1/3 that you will need to terminate.  More importantly your good employees will be appreciative that you hold their underperforming counterparts to standards.


So as you sit at home contemplating your cold beer and hot dog make a commitment to yourself to wrest Labor Day away from the unions and make it a true celebration of your employees and the great American worker by creating an environment where your employees can excel!



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