Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day, the Workers' Holiday

Ahhh, Labor Day! Celebrated on the first Monday of September, this end-of-summer holiday is marked by picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water sports, and public art events. For families with school-age children, it is the last chance to travel before the end of summer recess, and for high school and college students, it's the last carefree weekend for partying before the start of the fall semester.  For sports fans, Labor Day is the start of the NFL and college football seasons.

But what is Labor Day?  How did it come into being? 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, Labor Day "constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."  And to whom do you think thanks are owed  for the well-being of those selfsame workers?  To the efforts of labor unions, actually, those very unions which today are much-maligned by those who blame them for our current economic woes.

From the U.S. Department of Labor website, I also learned that the first Labor Day holiday was organized as a "workingmen's holiday" by the Central Labor Union, the nation's first integrated major trade union, and was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, with a parade.

Prior to the organization of the various unions, working conditions in America were dire, with workers being paid very little for back-breaking work under terrible conditions.  For example, " 1834-1836, women worked 16–17 hours a day to earn $1.25 to $2.00 a week. A girl weaver in a non-union mill would receive $4.20 a week versus $12.00 for the same work in a union mill. They had to buy their own needles and thread from the proprietor. They were fined for being a few minutes late for work. Women carried their own foot treadle machines or were held in the shops until the entire shop had completed an immediate delivery order. Their pay was often shorted, but a protest might result in immediate dismissal. Sometimes whole families worked from sun-up to midnight. Pulmonary ailments were common due to dust accumulation on the floors and tables. Some shops had leaks or openings in the roofs, and workers worked in inclement weather."  (wikipedia)

Despite the odds, some of the women challenged the employers. Their first organization was called the Daughters of Liberty in 1765. In 1825, the women reorganized, calling themselves the United Tailoresses of New York. Strikes occurred over the years, and some were successful. Many were not.

The above example of workplace abuse is only one of hundreds.  Men and children workers faced similar unbearable conditions in the workplace.

The fight for an 8-hour day, a living wage, and safe working conditions was long and bloody.  It could not have been waged without the unions.  So, while fewer American workers belong to unions today than ever before, and union busting seems part of today's political rhetoric, all of us who work an 8-hour day in a safe environment and draw a decent paycheck owe our thanks to those early unions and to those men and women who fought and sometimes gave their lives for the rights of all American workers.

Happy Labor Day, America.

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