What is the true meaning of Labor Day? A history of the holiday for workers rights.
We all like to enjoy a lovely three day weekend to celebrate the “unofficial end of summer.” Many look forward to Labor Day weekend for one last barbecue or trip to the beach. But do we really stop to reflect on the meaning of the holiday?
In most recent years workers have been fighting for fair pay, better working conditions and the right to unionize. In 2015, workers from McDonald’s and other fast food establishments protested for an increase in the minimum wage. The “Fight for 15” movement fought for a 15 dollar minimum wage and many argue this minimum is the amount of pay needed to get by. Since then, states such as California and New York have agreed to raise the minimum wage, in stages, to $15 by the end of 2020.
Sometimes it takes a movement to create a change. In today’s society, many companies, in the name of profits, still take advantage of their employees and labor unions are decreasing in influence. Employers are also lobbying government officials to change labor laws to favor themselves. “Right-to-Work” laws state that no employee can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join, or pay dues to a labor union. These laws undermine labor unions by stripping them of the funds that they need to survive. Supporters of “Right-to-Work” state that the legislation helps with job creation, however, all it does is create an increase in low wage jobs as well as making it less likely employees will receive health insurance, pensions and increases the risk of getting injured on the job.
But there was once a time where working conditions were much worse than they are today.
Over 10,000 people marched the streets for the first Labor Day, which took place in Union Square in New York City on September 5, 1882. The march was organized by the city’s labor unions and was not yet a national holiday. There were also protests that fought for eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, and ending the practice of child labor. Back then, employees were faced with sweatshop working conditions, such as locked exit doors creating fire hazards, cheap labor standards, and including children as young as ten years old working in coal mines and hazardous factories. Companies worked hard to fight the labor unions and suppress strikes or other work actions which led to violent battles between employees and business owners, often having the business owners backed up by the police or the military.
The protests and violence between employees and business owners continued to get much worse. For example, the violent Haymarket Square riot of 1886, organized by industrial workers in Chicago, led to the death of several police officers and workers. Eight men were arrested in connection with throwing a bomb at the police during the riot despite the lack of any tangible evidence. All eight men were convicted in connection with the bombing, and four of them were executed through hanging. It wasn’t until this bloody tragedy that many laborers and political groups from around the world had begun to mark May 1 as International Workers Day (May Day).
It wasn’t until almost ten years later in 1894 that President Grover Cleveland signed a federal law making Labor Day a federal holiday in America only days after he sent 12,000 troops to stop a violent railroad strike in Chicago, which led to the death of several people.
Despite the holiday, it still took a while for changes the workers wanted to become a reality. In 1938 during the Great Depression that left millions without jobs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law, The Fair Labor Standards Act, calling for an eight-hour workday, five-day work week and imposed restrictions on child labor.
The horrific bloodshed that occurred, fighting for fair working conditions of today, is something to be genuinely grateful for. Standing up and fighting for what is right is a process that will never end. Today we are fortunate that protests take place in a more peaceful matter. However, we should look at more recent movements such as the “Fight for 15” as proof that protests actually work. If you don’t let your voice be heard, then greedy corporations will continue to take advantage of you.
Labor Day has celebrated the achievements of workers and to talk about their concerns, as well as address ways to get better working conditions and salaries.
How do you celebrate your Labor Day weekend? Let us know down in the comments.
Have a happy and safe Labor Day Weekend!