To the Point: Penn State professor discusses Labor Day

Paul Clark, professor and head of Penn State's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, offers insight into the history of Labor Day and a brief overview of labor and employment-related current events in the United States.

Can you briefly explain the origin of our nation's Labor Day holiday?

Labor Day has a long history in the United States. First celebrated in 1882 in New York City, the holiday was created by the American labor movement to honor the contributions workers have made to the "strength, prosperity and well-being of our country." Today it is celebrated with parades in major cities and small towns -- Pittsburgh claims to have the largest such parade -- and by family celebrations across the nation.

What do you consider noteworthy in relation to Labor Day this year?

This Labor Day holds particular significance because legislation currently before Congress could have a great impact on the American workplace. In its present form, the U.S. health care system is largely based on employer-provided health insurance. The health care reform legislation now before Congress could change that and has important implications for all Americans.

Also of great interest is legislation that proposes the most significant reforms to U.S. labor law in more than 60 years. The Employee Free Choice Act would change the way employees choose to be represented by a union and the obligations unions and employers have to bargain with one another. It is legislation that labor and management have very strong feelings about and which could have very important ramifications for both.

Both of these important pieces of legislation are expected to be taken up by Congress after the Labor Day recess.

Our department's students, faculty and alumni -- who work as human resources managers, directors of labor relations, union representatives, labor and employment law attorneys and government officials -- will be following these developments closely as the world of work continues to change.

Lastly, shortly after Labor Day, a Penn State alumnus, Richard Trumka, is expected to be elected to the nation’s top labor leadership position, the presidency of the AFL-CIO. Trumka, a native of Nemacolin, Pa., and a 1971 Penn State graduate, currently serves as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO's annual meeting will be held Sept. 13-17 in Pittsburgh, where both the AFL and CIO originated, as well as unions including the United Steelworkers and the Ironworkers.

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Penn State's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations consists of faculty specialists in labor-management relations, human resources, labor economics, leadership and the relationship between work and family. Paul Clark also holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Health Policy and Administration.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010