“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” (U.S. Department of Labor)
The day emerged during a transitional period for the United States economy that lasted well into the 20th century. Rates of participation in the manufacturing sector increased, while rates of participation in the agricultural sector decreased. Safety laws, health ordinances, and other protections for workers largely did not exist at the turn of the century. Immigrants, such as my grandmother, faced harsh working conditions.
The U.S. celebrated the first federal Labor Day holiday in September of 1894, although some cities and states had established the holiday during the preceding 10 years. Pressure to improve conditions for working people motivated legislators to act to establish the holiday. Labor strikes, violence, and unrest in 1894 pushed them to enact legislation, subsequently signed by the President, with the hope that the symbolism of the holiday would prompt change.
A railroad strike in the spring of 1894 and a sympathy boycott of the railroads led by Eugene Victor Debs (I worked for radio station WEVD, named after him, but that’s another story.) precipitated a feud between federal and local officials regarding whose troops should restore order in Chicago:
“President Cleveland dispatched federal troops to the city to enforce the injunction. Illinois’ pro-labor governor, John Peter Altgeld, who had already called out state militia troops to prevent violence, was outraged, calling the government’s actions unconstitutional. With the arrival of federal troops, the Pullman strike turned bloody, with some rioters destroying hundreds of railroad cars in South Chicago on July 6, and National Guardsmen firing into a mob on July 7, killing as many as 30 people and wounding many others.” (History.com)
Does that sound eerily parallel to events we have witnessed in 2020?
History does not show that improvement in workers’ lives occurred at the hoped-for pace. Enactment of laws to protect the health and safety of workers, and everyone else, occurred slowly during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Minnesota passed safety legislation as early as the 1880s. However, it tended to have only modest effects because it relied on voluntary compliance. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 initiated the minimum wage. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination based on race, gender, and other personal characteristics.
Coincidentally, the first study published by Wilder Research, in 1917, prompted the development of municipal health and safety ordinances in cities around the U.S.
Despite legislation, advocacy, and good intentions, the benefits of employment remain unavailable to some in our communities. Racial and gender differences persist in the proportion of adults who work, wages, and corporate leadership, for example. Minnesota Compass shows how these disparities exist in Minnesota.
On this Labor Day, my wish is that we can find ways to distribute equitably the fruits of our economy to all people in the U.S.
In addition, on this day originally intended to honor people employed in the paid labor force, I suggest that we might broaden our definition of “labor” to honor all of us who contribute to our economy and our communities. We can treat the day as an opportunity to celebrate people who engage in paid employment, but also those who engage in raising children or in other forms of caregiving, in volunteer work to make our communities better, or in any other type of endeavor where they apply their energy and talents. Most of us engage in at least one, if not more, of those activities.
Let’s celebrate all who labor!