It’s a day to honor real laborers — U.S. small business owners

Tony Gagliardi

Could there be a more perfect conversion of symbolism about what is wrong with the American economy than what will take place on Sept. 5 in Detroit? There, a president of the United States whose regulatory excesses have stifled meaningful job creation will make a Labor Day speech to union workers now only a faint representation of their former numbers in a city whose major industries were rescued not by innovation, but by a massive Berlin airlift of taxpayer dollars.

It’s not time to junk Labor Day as a federal holiday. It’s time to honor the real laborers rolling up their sleeves and pulling the rickety buckboards of the American and Colorado economic wagons — small business owners and the self-employed.

Established in 1894 to honor the contributions of union workers, Labor Day is now only a distant echo of the numbers it once stood for. According to a news release issued earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier. It’s worth noting this statistic includes both government and private-sector union members.

Pull unionized government employees from the 11.9 percent, and the rate of union members working at private enterprises falls to 6.9 percent. By comparison, according to BLS economist Steven Hipple, “In 2009, 15.3 million individuals were self employed, including both those who had incorporated their businesses and those who had not. The self-employment rate … was 10.9 percent.”

Add to the 10.9 percent self-employment rate those small business owners considering themselves employers as opposed to self-employed. Although it’s difficult to obtain an exact number for this group, it’s not hard to see that combined they number more than unionized workers. And as anyone who has run a small business or been an independent contractor can tell you, he or she puts in many more hours than just 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.

Attribute whatever you will to the decline of union membership, the new labor in need of a new Labor Day has different needs — needs their federal and state governments can either help or hinder to the economy’s benefit or peril.

As a professional advocate for small business owners, I’m glad to see states, including ours, finally getting it and beginning the bipartisan effort needed to address the particular needs of that linchpin of all economies: Main Street mom-and-pop shops.

The formula for a successful and thriving small business economy is really no mystery and can be summarized in three goals: low taxes, minimal regulations and a legal environment that discourages frivolous lawsuits.

In Denver this year alone, the National Federation of Independent Business, America’s voice of small business, worked with lawmakers from both parties and various coalitions to:

n Start a health care exchange that will make medical coverage more affordable for small business, an exchange to be designed here at home and not one imposed from Washington, D.C.

n Defeat legislation making frivolous lawsuits easier to file.

n Stop a bill that would have prohibited the use of credit reports in hiring decisions.

Much more needs to be done if we are to really spur the job creation generated by small business owners. But at least the above victories send a strong signal that all of us are serious about putting out the welcome mat to enterprises considering setting up shop in Colorado and to businesses already here that it’s time to dust off those expansion plans.

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a study on the negative and positive views people hold on various American institutions. Small business came out first, 39 percentage points higher than labor unions, 46 points higher than large corporations and 49 points higher than banks and financial institutions.

Now for a day to celebrate. On Sept. 5, we should all reflect on the real labor doing the heavy lifting of the American and Colorado economies: small business owners, their employees and the self-employed.


Tony Gagliardi is Colorado state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. Reach him at (303) 325-6243 or