Labor Day weekend. It signals back to school time for many people in the United States and a time for one last party, picnic, or barbeque and boating weekend before the summer ends. Labor Day weekend can also be a time of parades and fireworks, depending on where you live.
But do you know why this holiday exists and why we celebrate workers in America?
Origins of Labor Day
In the late 1800s, according to the History Channel, “the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.”
Work was often physically demanding and working conditions were often very unsafe. Sanitary facilities and breaks barely existed (think no required coffee breaks or lunch breaks). In many factories and mills, workers were never exposed to fresh air or what we would now consider proper ventilation.
Because of these conditions, labor unions grew in size and raised their voices. They organized strikes and marches to protest the poor treatment of workers, and they attempted to force employers to lessen the workers’ hours and to raise their rates of pay.
The first of these marches was a “parade” of American workers who gave up a day’s pay and traveled from New York’s City Hall to a giant picnic at an uptown park (Union Square) on September 5, 1882. The New York Times reported that 10,000 people marched and advocated for an eight-hour workday and that those workers were cigarmakers, dressmakers, printers, shoemakers, bricklayers and other tradespeople. Many of these people risked their jobs by participating in the one-day strike.
Labor activists and local municipalities recognized “Labor Day” as early as 1885 and 1886. And in 1887 Oregon became the first state to pass a law recognizing the day. Four more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York—quickly followed, and then Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
Other strikes and marches followed, including some notable ones like the Haymarket Riot of 1886 where a bomb went off killing strikers and police, and the 1894 Pullman Palace Car Company strike, both of which took place in Chicago. It was following the Pullman Strike, where 13 workers died, that on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland “made reconciliation with the labor movement a top priority of his administration” and declared a federal holiday the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a time to celebrate American workers. (Twenty-three states had already declared Labor Day a holiday before it became federally-recognized.)
Labor Day Now
Many of us are grateful for a long weekend and being off from school or work for one day. And for the chance to be outside, to congregate with family or friends, and to soak up the rays of summer sun.
We may appreciate the abundance of Labor Day sales that flood our inboxes, our ads and our airwaves, and take advantage of no-sales tax or discounted pricing.
But I ask you this Labor Day weekend to think about those who have come before us, those who fought so you can work fewer hours for higher wages than they received. And for those who lost their lives in the poor working conditions and in the fight for workers’ rights.
Also, if you plan to take advantage of the sales, consider the workers who made the product. Have you ever considered what their lives are like and their working conditions and if they are being treated fairly?
We live in an age where we can make choices and cast votes and support causes not only with our ballots, but also with our dollars. Part of being a Whole Champion is caring about the welfare of others, and that includes workers worldwide. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity.”
Let’s uplift and celebrate humanity during Labor Day weekend 2022.