The history behind Labor Day

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The history behind Labor Day was a struggle for workers. Photo by MANDI BATEMAN

Labor Day is a holiday when many people look forward to a three-day weekend, barbecues, friends and family. However, many people don’t realize the history of what it took to get where we are today, from the advent of the 40-hour work week and working five days a week, to the struggles of labor unions and their workers, when the union movement was in its infancy.

In the 1800s, as a country, we were shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. It was the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Conditions at the time were 10- to 16-hour days, with many people moving into large cities to barely eke out a living while working seven days a week.

Working conditions were very poor with little to no breaks and bad sanitation practices. The company was king. People like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and other titans of the industry ruled. Children as young as five and six years old worked in factories and mills, often for a fraction of their adult counterparts.

By the late 1800s, often struggling labor unions — an idea very much frowned upon by big business — was gaining traction. However, this did lead to strikes and riots by a growing workforce, increasingly frustrated by poor working conditions, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago and the Pullman Palace Car Company strike of 1894, which left more than a dozen workers dead after protests against wage cuts and firing of union representation

The late 1800s also brought mounting tensions between big business and a growing labor force. The first state legislature to begin regulating labor conditions was New York in 1885, but the first state to pass legislation was Oregon on Feb. 21, 1887, with four more states following — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

In the midst of all the growing tension, on Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square to protest working for unpaid time, marking the first Labor Day Parade.

By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 more states joined the ever-growing movement. On June 28, 1894 U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed into law the official holiday of Labor Day. It was recognized as the working man’s holiday, giving rise to a never-ending, growing middle class, which by the 1920s would come to define America.

On Sept. 25, 1926 Henry Ford created the now-standard, five-day work week and limited the work week to 40 hours.

Ford said, “It’s high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for working men is either lost time or a class privilege.”

This was part of the changing of the times. A new generation had sprung up and was setting new goals and values. By this time, because of the workers who came before them, labor unions and the workers that they represented — were finally coming to fruition.

In moving forward, it wasn’t until June 28, 1968 that the uniform Monday Act was signed into federal law. This gave workers more three day weekends.

It was a culmination of more than 80 years to reach this point, so today while we barbecue with friends and family, let us remember our grandfathers and grandmothers who came before us to make this possible. While we may be moving forward in an ever-growing technological age, let us not lose the values of our grandparents and our forefathers. Let us remember that hard work and perseverance does eventually pay off.

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