Imagine if this were taught in schools as part of the regular curriculum…
More Than Just a Holiday
A Register-Guard editorial, Sept. 4, 2017
“What does labor want? . . . We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
—Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, 1893.
Labor Day has become synonymous with picnics and barbecues, the end of summer and the start of school. It’s the last hurrah before everyone shifts out of vacation planning more and settles back into the workaday routine.
Other than some labor union stalwarts, few people give much thought to when, how or why the holiday started. They’re just grateful for a three-day weekend. The early history of Labor Day includes elements that are much darker than the current observances, however, and which bear remembering.
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. Many workers took the day off without pay to parade and otherwise mark the holiday, giving them a taste of what it’s like to have what Americans now take for granted — two days off in a row.
The idea of having a day honoring workers continued to gain popularity nationally. In 1887, at the opposite end of the country from New York, Oregon became the first state to pass a bill creating a Labor Day holiday. Seven years later, — during a time of social, economic and political upheaval — Labor Day became a national holiday, albeit under unsavory circumstances.
The country was going through the turmoil of the industrial revolution, a series of recessions and bitter fights over issues such as child labor and the need for a living wage. Unions had become increasingly important for workers as a means to band together and push for change. Strikes had also become common, some leading to bloody confrontations. In 1894, workers at the Pullman rail car company in Illinois went on strike after wages, hours and jobs were slashed.
The strike quickly spread across the country. In response, President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and sent troops in to break it. Violence erupted, and 30 strikers were killed by federal troops.
Shortly thereafter Congress passed — and Cleveland signed — a bill declaring the first Monday in September a day to honor workers, in what many historians saw as either an attempt to appease unions or save face after the deaths at Pullman.
Other bloody incidents since then have marred the history of labor relations in the United States, but there have been far more examples of progress — of doing away with unjust laws or practices and of finding paths and compromises that benefit both workers and employers in ways that add to the prosperity of the country.
Laws now protect against the abuses of child labor. Other laws bar discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, age, gender and sexual orientation.
There are workplace safety laws, and agencies to enforce them. Workers now take for granted the 40-hour workweek, the eight-hour workday, weekends, paid vacation time, sick leave, the right to breaks, collective bargaining, overtime pay and more — much of it due to Samuel Gompers and others who followed him.
America has made progress on many of the dreams that Gompers had when he wrote those words in 1893, although the country isn’t there yet. This Labor Day, in between grilling, relaxing and visiting with friends and family, take a moment to say a silent thank you to Gompers and others like him, for their efforts to make the world of work a better place.