President Reagan celebrated Labor Day early with a Chicago speech stretching out his hand to America's working men and women. They need all the help they can get as they deal with the largest drop in buying power since 1947 -- and new versions of such problems as cheap foreign competition that concerned founders of the nation's major labor organization, the AFL-CIO, a century ago.
Yet, even in the midst of worker economic conditions that make today's look like paradise, founder Samuel Gompers looked beyond dollars and cents in a way that is only now being caught up with. In Japan, Europe, and more and more in the United States a recognition is arising that the best thing for both labor and management is the fullest development of each individual's potentiality -- something that requires all sorts of mutually respectful, two-way-street working arrangements in addition for fair remuneration.
The language may be different from the days when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was established in 1881 -- the parent of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which came along later in the decade with Gompers as its first president at a salary of $1,000 a year. But the message today is much like what Gompers said:
"I do not value the labor movement only for its ability to give higher wages, better clothes, and better homes -- its ultimate goal is to be found in the progressively evolving life possibilities of those who work. There are such wonderful possibilities in the life of each man and woman!"
There is a guide here not only for unions, workers, and employers but for government. It is the legislation that protects those "wonderful possibilities" which is needed. It is the legislation that thwarts them which needs elimination. Mr. Reagan has always hailed these individual possibilities. In Chicago he implied as much when he supported the rights of workers and said, "We propose to control government, not people." He has in effect challenged his administration to live up to this as it proceeds with a controversial legislative agenda on labor. Workers will have ample apportunity to judge.
One thing on which there must be glad agreement on any Labor Day is that in the United States, as Mr. Reagan said, there are the means to change laws found to be unjust or onerous. Unions can have their big Sept. 19 "Solidarity" protest rally without the problems its Polish namesake union has had. Workers are not at the mercy of government like those in China who are waiting to hear whether guaranteed jobs and income are to be replaced by a system in which people might receive pay cuts or even be fired for falling down on the job.
China is experimenting with such approaches in order to get more productivity in the free-enterprise manner. The US, at its far different stage of progress, confronts similar problems requiring the whole energies and talents of its people.
This Labor Day, more than ever, one longterm need demands immediate efforts by labor, management, and government. It is what the Business Roundtable, among others, identifies as a growing imbalance between the supply of workers and the skills demanded. Technologies are changing. The mix of jobs in services, farming, and manufacturing is changing. The workers need to be readied for the jobs. Where private enterprise cannot handle the whole task, the government must assume a coordinating and training role.
Solving this question of "structural unemployment" is a central challenge of today in releasing the wonderful possibilities in every man and woman. The Labour Day parade must not pass it by.