A couple of years ago, a friend campaigning for public office toured a struggling small business. "You know what the problem is," the owner told him, "whenever we get a knock on the door from a government agency, it's always bad news. It's never something good."
That shopkeeper captured in a nutshell something that most American business owners understand. There's a mindset by many in government that employers, regardless of size, are to be mistrusted. They must be regulated and checked constantly, at every level of government, lest they look out for their own interests too much.
That inherent suspicion of enterprise -- the perception that employees need activist protection from their employers -- lies at the root of the national holiday we celebrate Monday. Labor Day, after all, was the invention of the American labor movement at the end of the 19th Century. That movement sought to widen and institutionalize the natural divide between employers and employees as a way to gain political power. Labor Day was a muscle flex to the industrialists of the day.
Organized labor's successes included a shorter workweek, improved child labor laws and better workplace safety for everyone. All good things. But it also exaggerated an "us vs. them" mentality that endures to this day. That's probably not helpful.
Personally, I've never been a fan of the Labor Day concept. It strikes me as a touch un-American. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to take the day off. But I don't accept the notion of two fixed Americas, one comprised of laborers and one comprised of business owners. It's antithetical to the America of job mobility I know and believe in -- and the one we always should be striving to grow. Yet lots of Americans genuinely see the country divided today into permanent working and ruling classes. It's no wonder, considering how many political leaders exploit that proposition to gain votes.
Tensions between employees and employers have always made good politics. The rallying cry that once assailed the "robber barons" is now aimed at the "crony capitalists" -- employers large and wealthy enough to buy their way through the labyrinth of government regulation strangling their competitors. There is both irony and merit to that cry.
But with the underemployment rate stubbornly hovering at about 15 percent this Labor Day, maybe it's time to give businesses a little credit and recognition for all they do for this country. I, for one, would be hosed without employers. Most of us would be.
We have a national Boss's Day, on Oct. 16. But that doesn't count. A boss isn't always a job provider, and besides, who ever heard of Boss's Day? It gets about as much recognition as global "Belly Laugh Day," which is held every Jan. 24. Seriously.
How about a combination Labor Day and "Employer's Day." We're all in this together after all. We could call it "Economic Growth Day." Who could disagree with that . . . other than about half of Congress and every union leader in America?
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.