Laboring the Weekend Away: 121 years of Labor Day
Labor Day Weekend: for many, this three-day weekend represents the final fling of summer. In the high country, it’s the last warm-weather holiday for backyard cookouts before the cooler weather sends us indoors.
And while BBQs can be a lot of work, that’s not why it’s called Labor Day. This holiday has paid tribute to the American worker for 121 years.
The roots of this celebration can be traced back to a time when the U.S. workforce was experiencing great transition. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and people were trading in their rural farm lives for the dream of a secure, year-round income that came with a factory job. Unfortunately, they often found themselves toiling 12 – 14 hour days in dingy, and sometimes dangerous conditions.
It was his outrage concerning these working conditions that prompted Peter McGuire, a leader of the carpenters union, with the idea of a day for workers to show their solidarity. So in 1882, they had a big parade in New York. Workers showed their disdain for working conditions by carrying signs that read, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for recreation!” The whole happening turned out to be more of a festival than a demonstration. There were picnics and fireworks, plus everyone took the day off from work.
The demonstration was successful in capturing the interest of the nation, motivating President Grover Cleveland to sign a bill making the first Monday in September a national holiday honoring the American worker. Ultimately, his gesture was viewed as political, trying to appease an unhappy constituency concerning his handling of a labor strike at the Pullman Company in Chicago which left 34 people dead. Cleveland’s scheme did not work. While Labor Day was established as a national holiday, the president lost his bid for re-election.
That was 1894. So what about today? Is the American worker any better off? While the statistics demonstrate working conditions are safer today than 121 years ago, the mental and emotional turmoil of today’s laborer reigns as the primary concern. Today if you were to tell your employer that you demanded 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of recreation, you might find yourself standing in the unemployment line for eight hours. Today’s laborer is expected to come in early, stay late and work on weekends. Today’s American worker is told that they are “lucky to have a job” and that there are 50 people who would be happy to take their position if they’re not content with conditions.
But with unemployment numbers consistently hovering around double digits, perhaps we should stop focusing on revolution, and hope for some evolution within American corporations. In the meantime, those lucky enough to be employed: enjoy your holiday! On the other hand, if you’re laboring today, don’t worry; we’ll save a burger from the grill for you.