The Worker’s Holiday.
For many people Labor Day is the unofficial end of Summer and is just part of a long weekend full of barbecues, parades and picnics. Those are definitely part of the holiday’s tradition but while still enjoying ourselves and our much-needed time off from work, it is important to reflect on the reason why the holiday exists in the first place.
Labor Day is a day to honor the achievements of American workers. It became a federal holiday in 1894 due to the efforts of the Labor Movement. In the 19th century workers had almost no rights. Most workers were working 12-hour days, seven days a week simply to survive. Child labor was common with five and six-year-old children working in mills, factories and mines, which were the same long hours as adults for but for a fraction of the pay. Working conditions were not regulated and many of the poor and newly immigrated workers did not have access to safe working conditions, clean, breathable air or even short breaks from work throughout the day.
The rights workers have today did not come by chance; they were fought for. As workers moved into cities from the farms and started working factory jobs, labor unions grew in strength and workers started to vocalize the need for safe working conditions, the regulation of hours and pay, and the elimination of child labor. Through labor unions organizing strikes, boycotts and marches, they started to rack up many hard-fought victories. The strength of labor unions in the late 19th century is why Americans today have the right to take beaks every four hours, weekends, and must be paid time and a half for more than 40-hour workweeks, among other things.
The first Labor Day Parade happened in New York City on September 5, 1882 when around 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square. Other events turned violent like the boycott of all Pullman rail cars in Chicago on June 26th 1894. Eugene V. Debs, a prominent union organizer and several-time presidential candidate, led the America Railroad Union’s boycott that halted all rail traffic in the country. The federal government mustered troops to break the strike, resulting in a wave of riots and more than a dozen workers’ deaths. Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the wake of the massive unrest as an attempt to repair ties with the American working people.
As Americans we cannot take Labor Day for granted. Many rights have been won, but over time many of those rights have been weakened or rolled back entirely. There is still a great deal of work to be done to advance the causes of safe working conditions for all, paid time off, maternity leave, and a living wage.