As I am sitting down to write this post on a lovely Friday afternoon with the Labor Day weekend ahead of me, which is not for me at least a three-day weekend (but I get over-time pay so Yay!) it seems right to be grateful, but then it occurred to me that I have never researched the history of Labor Day before. I mean, I know it has to do with being thankful for American Workers; it’s implied in the name.
But…other than three-day weekends, Labor Day is like Memorial or Veterans Day without the Military. People get three-day weekends, they go off with their families on camping trips, have picnics or barbecues, take mini-vacations. Labor comes and goes without much fanfare beyond maybe a few news media articles. There was debate on who came up with the idea; local cities, then a few states, and finally a President took it Federal.
To celebrate American workers. Well, something like that anyway. According to the Department of Labor, the day is the product of the Labor Movement, here: Department of Labor: History of Labor Day between 1885 and starting with city ordinances, until it was made a Federal national holiday in…well, that’s clearly a typo….1894 according to Argosy U., here: Argosy University: All About Labor Day Why Do We Celebrate It.
The Department of Labor says, “It constitutes a yearly tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country“. Argosy University says, “…Labor Day is the direct result of the labor movement’s push for better working conditions.” Argosy goes on to inform that at the time, it was the norm for American workers to work 12-hour workdays 7-days a week.
Children as young as 5 also worked, and worked long hours “in mines and mills”. Argosy also tells us that dangerous workplace conditions were the rule and not the exception and that the labor movement secured the national holiday before it managed to secure the 8-hour work-day and overtime pay for hourly workers (1916), safer workplace conditions, and virtually an end to child labor (at least in the U.S., in 1938).
There is quite a bit of white-washing in the name of “professionalism” going on where the Department of Labor and even Argosy University are both concerned, though at least Argosy University acknowledges (barely) that the labor movement consisted of unions. It is to the American workforce that we all owe our current standard of living, our economy, and “so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership.”
But specifically, it’s to the American union workers that we owe our better working conditions to, including 8-hour workday, the 5-day/40-hour work week, and overtime pay for non-salaried employees. It’s to American union workers that we owe our gratitude for the fact that children can go to school instead of working in the dangerous conditions of a mine, mill or factory.
There is also a darker side to the history of Labor Day. For instance, the September date was deliberately chosen to separate the holiday from the International Worker’s Day on May 1st. May 1st is associated with an event known as the Haymarket Affair that took place in Chicago Illinois on May 4, 1886, and has associations to socialist and communist movements in Europe.
Also not mentioned is the Pullman Strike on May 11, 1894 also in Chicago in a Pullman-owned part of town. The Pullman Strike resulted in 30 people killed and $80 million dollars in property damage. Following this strike, Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday. For the full story, go here: The US celebrates Labor Day because of a bloody clash over 100 years ago that left 30 people dead and cost $80 million in damages.
Also see: The Smithsonian: The making of Labor Day, and R.B. Campbell, Univ. Northern Iowa: Labor Day/May Day. For information on the associations between American unions and Civil Rights, Human Rights, Liberty, Equality, and Social Justice, go here: University of Maryland: For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions making history in America. And Western States Center: Labor History Timeline.
In short, as an American worker I am extremely grateful to have a job that only requires me to work 40-hours a week, 5-days a week, and when I do have to work more hours or days than that, my employer pays me over-time pay at time and a half. That people had to fight for these things, sometimes literally, and some people died is both surprising and yet, it’s not surprising at all if that makes sense. Mostly, it figures.
People a 100 years ago had to stand together and force employers to pay fairly, make provisions for workplace and job safety, and to treat them with respect. They had to get a lot of it legally regulated, and now, everyone is led to believe that unions are bad, and all of these things were “just magnanimously given over” to us by employers and politicians for no real reason other than they “were feeling appreciative”.
Right well, I’m appreciative too. Thank you American union workers!