Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Little Less Laboring on Labor Day

Labor Day is a national holiday which most of us don't really pay a whole lot of attention to - except that it's the unofficial end of summer.  It's the other bookend holiday, with Memorial Day being the start of summer in May.  Since Labor Day lines up so well with the back-to-school rush, and the dwindling sunshine, it makes the perfect marking point for us to have our final hurrah - taking the last possible weekend for a little vacation getaway, or gathering friends and family to squeak in one more pool and grilling party before fall sets in.

Labor Day, however, is a little bit bigger than that, as you might imagine. It is a day that pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. That is no small thing. This country was built around the hard work and back-breaking efforts of millions of Americans.  

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of wages paid to adults. People of all ages, especially the poor and new immigrants, faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with very little access to fresh air, bathrooms or breaks.

As manufacturing continued to outgrow agriculture as the mainstay of American employment, labor unions, which first appeared in the late 1700's, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest lousy work conditions and convince employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Some of these events turned violent - with both demonstrators and police being killed. But other rallies were the start of new traditions. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday" caught on in cities across the country, and states started passing legislation to recognize that first Monday in September. But it took a wave of riots in the wake of the highly contentious Pullman Palace Car strike in Chicago to finally move Congress to make it a federal holiday in 1894.
Unions, strikes, worker's rights and pay issues have raised battles continuously since then and it's a constant even in today's news.  But while there's always going to be two sides to every fight, I think it's important to take a minute to appreciate all the hard work that generations have put into making our country excellent, and giving us a first class reputation in so many fields of endeavor: science, technology, manufacturing and so much more. It's the every working folk who even now, are paving (some even literally) the way to our future.
Even if I have to work a little bit myself this Monday, I'm going to take a moment to give thanks to not only those long-suffering, tireless workers (even kids), but the strikers and unions who made it possible for so many Americans to have living wage paychecks, regular hours and even vacations.