By Meagan Bensette
For those of us who spent our summers under the fluorescent glow of an office cubicle, Labor Day weekend cannot come soon enough. The annual holiday brings barbeques, camping, family gatherings and a chance to relish the last of summer. But do you know how Labor Day came about?
Its fascinating history boasts a truly American tale of the sweat, toil and tears that built this country’s booming workforce and vibrant economy. While historians are not entirely clear whether McGuire or Maguire established the holiday, one thing is for certain: it was time for American workers to garner recognition for their social and economic achievements.
The end of the 19th century was a time of mass immigration, with European settlers coming to this country in search of jobs and a better life. Back then, a better life meant employment and workers spent a lot of time at their jobs. The American worker put in 10 to 12-hour days most of the week (it wouldn’t be until 1916 when railroad workers and President Woodrow Wilson agree to legislation on an 8-hour work day). Can you imagine?!
There was little health insurance, no sick days, no “I’m going to swing by the office a little late so I can drop my child off at daycare.” In fact, only a little over half of the United States had laws restricting child labor at that time and thousands of children found themselves in factories surrounded by machinery instead of in a classroom surrounded by books. In an era long before workers’ compensation and workplace safety, on-the-job injuries and deaths were commonplace.
The first Labor Day took place in New York City on September 5, 1882, as a parade of Central Labor Union members and 10,000 of their colleagues took to the streets to celebrate the common worker. After the parade, they commemorated with the very first Labor Day picnic, using it as an opportunity to inspire others to join in the impending fight for workers’ rights.
The tradition continued the next year and each year after that the momentum grew. Recognition of the holiday took veracity and dedication, because until Labor Day became a federal holiday, those who took off work to celebrate forfeited their pay for the day.
And so grew the demand for workers’ rights as we know them today. Industrialization had outgrown agriculture as a leading industry, and with it came the hazards and unsanitary conditions bred in factories. Employees began to voice their concerns for fair wages, reasonable hours, the end of child labor and the right to unionize.
Shortly after the inaugural celebration in New York, the state of Oregon became the first to make Labor Day an official state holiday in 1887. Twenty-nine states followed in the coming years. Finally, in 1984, after the devastation of the Pullman Strike in Chicago, Congress opted to make Labor Day a national holiday.
So next Monday, as you trade in your office chair for a lawn chair and kick back with your cold beverage and potato salad, remember to celebrate those before us who helped shape this country’s workforce rights and granted us a “workingman’s” holiday. Celebrate your contributions to the workforce as well. You’ve certainly earned it.