Labor Day is a national holiday that falls on the first Monday of September. This date usually signifies one more chance to enjoy a long weekend of barbecues and summertime fun. This is not to confuse the idea that being a holiday makes it an official day off. There are plenty of people who have to ‘labor’ on this day, so hats off to you if you are one of them.
Recognizing the Past
While today’s American workforce may in some ways be split between laboring all night or staying up past midnight to shop big sales, this day offers recognition to some very important workforce safeguards. Things like child labor laws, 40-hour work weeks, overtime, fair wages, unemployment compensation, and social security. Your work life may be a struggle, but 200 years ago in order to receive even one weekday off from work (or even a weekend) it would have likely consisted of walking the streets, unpaid, carrying a picket sign.
And this is exactly what the unofficial Labor Day celebrations looked like in New York City back in 1882. Workers would spend the day marching in parades to show support for their unions. Parades that supported worker unity, fair wages, time off, and an end to the all too common 60-hour work week. Workers were docked a full day’s pay to attend these state-level Labor Day events, but with as many as 20,000 in attendance, it was not much of a deterrent. Over the next five years Labor Day would become recognized by Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and New Jersey. But the moment that would put Labor Day onto the national calendar would not come for another decade.
Winning the Right to a Rest
In 1894, a group of 3,000 Illinois workers walked off their jobs and demanded higher wages. The Pullman Palace Car Company had not only cut their weekly pay, but refused to decrease rent, making home life very difficult. But the workers were in a strong position, considering that the city of Chicago relied on railcars to transfer mail to and from the city’s gates. The mail was reaching a standstill, strikes escalated to rioting, and President Grover Cleveland decided to send federal troops in to get people off the streets and back to work. The workers protested more, extreme violence broke out, and President Cleveland was soon reminded about the upcoming election.
In order to compensate for all the negative criticism during his campaign, President Cleveland signed off on a rush order to make Labor Day a national holiday. And rush order it was; Congress managed to establish the holiday just six days after the tragedy. So, now labor workers had the recognition, but they still did not see much in the form of action. Cleveland would not get his second term, and it would be another 23 years before fair labor would score a 40-hour work week and an 8-hour work day.
Celebrating the Everyman
While today, the holiday is more about giving summer a last hurrah, Labor Day still offers the chance to honor the accomplishment and contributions from America’s workforce. It is also a time to evaluate your current work situation and consider if you are doing an overabundance of work off the clock, including any self-imposed anxiety or pressure you regularly feel. The worst work conditions I ever received were while working for myself, so if you do one thing this Labor Day, let it be that you are kind to yourself.
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