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Labor Day is perhaps the most contentious of our national holidays. We all love the three-day weekend, and there is universal admiration for the American worker.

But the holiday was not intended simply to honor the worker. As the U.S. Department of Labor notes, it is “a creation of the labor movement.”

There is scholarly debate as to whether Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., deserves credit for the holiday’s founding. But there is no debate as to the original purpose.

The first holiday was celebrated in 1882 based on plans laid out by the New York Central Labor Union. It included a parade to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” according to the Department of Labor.

These days, the emphasis of the holiday is less on the condition of the labor movement and more on the condition of the laborer. Each year at the end of summer, we give thanks to the American worker with one last long weekend before the chill of autumn sets in over most of the country, and we evaluate the current condition of the U.S. job market.

This Labor Day, the numbers are OK — better for the nation, with an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent, than for the state of New Mexico at 6.3 percent. About 7 million people in the U.S. are listed as unemployed, and a little more than a quarter of them have been without work for 27 weeks or more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for August.

Wages have increased by about 65 cents an hour nationally in the past year.

In the short term, our continued economic recovery will be dependent on the ability of the president and Congress to at least function. There is great anticipation for proposed tax reform. But before that can be considered, there are other votes on spending bills and raising the debt ceiling that have the potential to damage the economy if there is no agreement.

And, the full costs and impact from Hurricane Harvey have yet to be calculated.

The decisions by President Trump to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will also impact the availability of jobs in the near future, especially in the border region. Any new border tax or tariff could put the brakes on what has been one of the fastest-growing economic sectors of the state in Santa Teresa.

In the long term, the American worker is facing a growing threat that has nothing to do with foreign competition or divided government.

A new report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that 49 percent of the jobs now done by humans could be done through automation. In a recent story in USA Today, 58 percent of CEOs said that they plan to cut jobs in the coming years because of automation, while just 16 percent said that they planned to add jobs because of the new technology.

Factory work was the first to go, but it won’t end there. The McKinsey study found 70 professions, from butchers to lab techs, where at least 90 percent of the functions can be automated.

It won’t happen overnight, but there is transformational change coming to the workplace that will impact everything from education to retirement. We need to start preparing for it now.

— Las Cruces Sun-News

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