Monday, September 1, 2014

And You Spend Your Life Putting Money in His Wallet

For 120 years, Americans have celebrated the first Monday in September by taking the day off.  We enjoy the long weekend.  We host barbecues and make a family day out of it.  But, do we really know what Labor Day is or how it came to be a national holiday?  Is it something we cover in detail in our history classes?  Would we remember if it had been?

Labor Day is the result of the 19th century labor movement.  In the  midst of the Industrial Revolution, the average American man worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  Children as young as 5 years old were forced into horrific working conditions.  Mothers in textile sweatshops brought their toddlers to work because, even at age 2, little ones were capable of earning a living by picking up buttons and sewing scraps from the floors.

In the late 1800s, as industry replaced agriculture as the main American employment, labor unions gained strength and became more vocal.  Demands for better working conditions and pay, as well as strike threats (and follow-though,) became more common.  People grew tired of working their lives away for very little pay.  Workers were robbed of dignity and humanity.  It was a new breed of slavery.

On September 5, 1882, more than 10,000 laborers took unpaid time off to walk from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. It was the very first Labor Day parade.  When news of this parade traveled, the idea of a 'workman's holiday' caught on.  Many states passed legislation dedicating the first Monday in September to the workers.

Congress, however, did not pass legislation to recognize the holiday until 12 years later when employer practices could no longer be ignored.  On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest the firing of union employees and wage cuts.  On June 26, 1894, the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars to show support for the Pullman workers.  The boycott immobilized railroad traffic across the nation.

In order to break the strike, the feds sent troops to Chicago resulting in a wave of riots.  More than a dozen American workers were killed. In an attempt to appease and heal the American workforce, Congress passed an act declaring Labor Day an official holiday.

Many would argue that not a lot has changed.  Workers in industry and service still sweat to put money in the rich man's wallet.  However, conditions for today's worker are much, much better than those found 120 years ago.  If you're lucky enough to earn a livable wage and work a 9 to 5 job OR if you're enjoying this day off OR earning holiday pay/double time at your work, thank those hard workers whose blood, sweat and tears inspired this day.  Happy Labor Day.

No comments:

Post a Comment