Many people clock out of work on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day looking forward to holiday-weekend cookouts, parades, or a final end-of-summer outing to the beach. We might head home with plans to rest, relax, and socialize with family and friends. We also might take such work holidays, or even our eight-hour workdays, for granted. But historically, it was not very long ago when laborers struggled for such “basics” as safe working conditions and a standard number of work hours. The Labor Day holiday, as well as the related May Day (May 1) or International Workers’ Day celebrations in Europe, grew out of the United States labor movement of the late 1800’s.
The American labor movement first began in the early 1800’s, with the establishment of citywide, and later nationwide, labor organizations to further workers’ interests. By the 1860’s, a campaign for an eight-hour workday had emerged in the United States. At that time, many laborers worked 10 or more hours daily. On May 1, 1886, tens of thousands of workers in Chicago went on strike to support the eight-hour cause. Days later, a labor protest in Haymarket Square erupted in deadly violence, an ensuing riot, and the controversial conviction and execution of several anarchists. In 1889, an international congress of Socialist parties held in Paris voted to support American workers’ demands for an eight-hour day. It chose May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations to commemorate the events of May 1886. May 1 then became a workers’ holiday in many nations. It was not until 1938, when the United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, that a standard workweek was set, at 44 hours. It later was reduced to 40 hours.
In 1882, the Central Labor Union in New York City organized a “monster labor festival” that now is considered the first Labor Day celebration. The event, held on September 5, featured a parade of labor unions in which some 10,000 people marched, followed by an even larger picnic in a city park. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to pass legislation recognizing a Labor Day holiday. By 1894, more than 20 additional states officially had adopted the holiday. Finally, on June 28 of that year, the U.S. government created a national Labor Day holiday to be observed on the first Monday of every September. The legal creation of a national Labor Day coincided with the Pullman Strike, a major railroad strike that lasted from May through July of 1894.
This Labor Day weekend, as you relax by the pool or enjoy free time with friends, consider pausing to remember those who secured the workplace rights and dignities that we have come to consider the norm. You also might give a nod of appreciation to those workers in your community who continue working even on holidays, such as police officers, firefighters, doctors, and nurses, and encourage your children or students to do the same.
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