Labor Day - it's often seen as the unofficial end of summer, a brief respite for students and teachers after a few weeks of school, or perhaps a time to shop big sales at our favorite stores. Traditionally, it supposedly marks the time to put away …
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Labor Day - it's often seen as the unofficial end of summer, a brief respite for students and teachers after a few weeks of school, or perhaps a time to shop big sales at our favorite stores. Traditionally, it supposedly marks the time to put away one's white clothing until spring.
None of these, however, has anything to do with the real reason Labor Day was begun on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. On that date, oppressed laborers - around 10,000 of them - marched down Broadway in protest of unsafe working conditions, inhumanely long hours of work - 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the 19th century - low pay and even child labor.
The marchers carried signs, perhaps the most remembered one reading "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation."
The improvement in working conditions is due almost exclusively to the work of the labor unions of the time. Just three years after the parade, cities around the U.S. were observing the working man's holiday; Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday in 1887. By 1894, 31 states had made Labor Day an official day off to honor working people. It had not been an easy achievement.
Railroad employees who worked for George Pullman saw their wages cut while the rent on their homes - owned by Pullman - was raised and their working conditions continued to be intolerable. Those issues and the firing of union representatives seemed to be the final indignity visited on the workers. Fully 50,000 workers boycotted trains with Pullman cars, completely stalling rail traffic into and out of Chicago - there was no mail delivered to Chicagoans. The effects of the boycott spread around the country. When the public learned the reasons for the boycott, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed the first Monday in September a national holiday.
Cleveland's motives probably had more to do with the fact it was an election year; his strategy failed, likely because he sent troops to Chicago to break the boycott, a move that resulted in the deaths of several men. Cleveland's Democrats lost heavily in the Congressional elections. The labor movement continued to grow.
There is still an annual Labor Day parade in New York and a few other places, but generally people seldom stop on the first Monday in September to celebrate the many contributions of working people in the labor movement in the late 19th century. Businesses and government agencies continue to grant Labor Day off for their employees; few of us work seven days a week for 12 hours; and the labor movement still lobbies for better, guaranteed salaries for underpaid workers and defends employees from unfair treatment.
Ironically, many workers, especially those in retail, will work longer on Labor Day. Law enforcement, firefighters, healthcare workers and many others will continue to serve this Monday.
If they must work, perhaps while we're enjoying barbecues, a last day at the lake or just a relaxing time with a book, in front of the TV or at a movie, it's a good time to pause, even briefly, to reflect on those responsible for our current work situations and conditions. Consider that without those 19th century workers, we could all be at work right now, receiving no benefits but a barely living wage.
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