Are you a worker? Have you been a worker? If so, then today is your holiday, Labor Day. Historians generally cite that the Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea of a holiday for labor spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers across America.
Throughout the years Labor Day celebrations began to grow and several municipal ordinances were passed during 1885 and 1886 to recognize the holiday. Not surprisingly the first state to introduce Labor Day legislation was New York, but the first state to pass a Labor Day law was Oregon on February 21, 1887. As the year progressed, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York all created a Labor Day holiday by legislative means. Soon Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania would enact Labor Day legislation. By 1894, 30 states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and then all the states.
But just exactly what is Labor Day? The Department of Labor describes Labor Day as follows, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” As one can see, Labor Day is one of our few all inclusive holiday’s which sets no boundaries based upon a person’s religion or country of origin or involvement in any specific organization.
Some are fortunate enough to grow up in a home where their mother and father were part of our countries workforce in the 1940’s. While many of our men and women served around the world as World War II raged, many other men and women labored tirelessly at home to help guarantee us victory in this horrific conflict. Not only did the war force domestic workers into improbable careers for that era, often symbolized by the well-known depiction of “Rosie the Riveter,” but our domestic workforce also met the demands of wartime rationing and all the stresses placed upon the traditional family. Not only did workers help build our country, but they also helped our country to survive. Certainly many brave men and women have died valiantly defending our great nation, but also remember that many hardworking men and women perished while building a nation worth defending.
The great unified workforces of the 1900’s also stood together and addressed a long list of issues important to all the workers in our great country. They negotiated with employers and spoke with local, state and federal elected officials about the importance of weekends for rest and family time, overtime pay, an 8-hour workday, a guarantee of a minimum wage for their work, paid vacation days, sick days, health benefits, retirement benefits and compensation when a worker loses their job through no fault of their own.
But workers also made great strides in a couple other areas, strides that are often forgotten and taken for granted or worse yet, scoffed at today by some ungrateful citizens. Workers demanded safer working conditions. Employers often forced workers to work in overcrowded and outdated structures which faced huge risks from fire. These conditions also forced workers to endure extreme conditions such has heat, cold, improper ventilation, biological hazards and more. As America began to further industrialize, workers were faced with even greater risks from all the things listed earlier plus, dangerous machinery, toxic fumes and gases, chemicals and carcinogens, highly flammable and explosive work environments and other factors created during the boom in manufacturing after World War II. Look around the Mid-Ohio Valley and you can see many of the facilities, or their successors, in operation today. Chemical plants, steel mills, power plants, coal mines and many other workplaces where workers rallied together to not only create a safer work environment but a safer community as well.
One other important area of labor’s influence is in the creation of child labor laws. As America industrialized, many families moved from rural to urban communities. The rapid expansion of American industry, not unlike that seen in many Asian countries today, led to an extreme demand of workers. Children were often employed because they could fit into and access areas which were difficult for adults, but probably the two main reasons were children were easy to control and they could be paid less than an adult worker. At one time nearly 25% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen, often working in very dangerous conditions. Eventually the Fair Labor Standards Act and other state and federal laws began to address the problem child labor. These conditions are often difficult for Americans to visualize today, but one must imagine that parents today would not want their children to be excluded from an education, the sports team, music lessons, dance class or any family activity because they were working in a factory as an 11 year old.
Many battles have been fought by the men and women of labor since the beginning of our country. There have been wins and losses along the way, but also an ongoing desire to raise everyone’s standard of living, not just a few. Does anyone truly believe that the raises given by an employer 100 years ago or today are given out of the goodness of the employer’s heart? The answer is a resounding no for the majority of employers. As you listen to the many political speeches to be delivered this election season, pay attention to those who lean towards the working class of America and keep both a wary eye and mind focused on those who believe that unions and worker groups have outlived their usefulness and that corporate well-being is the key to our countries future. Every day unions are fighting so that all workers, both organized and unorganized, can raise their standard of living, build a strong, community engaged middle class and provide a little nicer opportunity for our next generation.
It is your Labor Day. Relax, remember and enjoy!