Labor Day History

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Most people look forward to Labor Day because it’s a day off of work. Students are thrilled about the holiday because it’s a nice break from their classes that just started a week prior. The day is often celebrated with parties, barbecues, parades, and beach days as it marks the unofficial end of summer. Observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. It’s a day that has been set aside for Americans to sit back and relax, but this holiday encompasses a long, difficult struggle for worker’s rights. The holiday was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894.

Labor Day originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters. 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. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. Though many of us feel that the typical 8-hour work day and five-day week is bleak, things used to be much more difficult for the average American worker.

As manufacturing became wellspring of American employment instead of agriculture, labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Others gave rise to longstanding 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.

As you enjoy your day off and say goodbye to the summer, consider the toils of our country’s laborers of years past and realize how lucky we are to have a 40 hour work week.

Lauren lives in OB with her French bulldog, Elvis Presley. She loves laughter and the great outdoors. You can contact her at [email protected].

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