On the first Monday in September, America observes Labor Day, a celebration of its workers and their contributions to the successes of the United States and its society.
The Labor Day holiday dates to the nineteenth century, a time of great industrial expansion that engendered enormous changes. Even before the American Civil War ended in 1865, the country was primed for an economic shift from agricultural to industrial production, particularly in the great cities of the Northeast. New inventions saw machines replace manual manufacturing and increased the rate and variety of production while an ever-expanding network of railroads enabled rapid transportation of materials to factories and goods to markets.
Such changes created a great need for workers. Americans looking for jobs flocked from the countryside to industrial centers like New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh even as wave after wave of immigrants arrived, primarily from Europe, hoping for jobs and new opportunities to improve their economic situation.
As the economy continued to expand, thousands of workers labored in factories, steel mills and mines 12 hours per day, 7 days a week, usually for minimal wages and frequently under harsh, even dangerous conditions. What’s more, it was common practice to employ children as young as five for a fraction of the twenty cents an hour earned by adult workers.
To gain leverage in negotiating with employers for better pay and work conditions, labor unions expanded and became more active. They organized strikes and rallies, which often became violent as striking workers clashed with hired strike breakers. As part of the protest, on September 5, 1882, 10,000 New York City workers took unpaid leave and marched from City Hall to a nearby park, thus taking part in the first so-called Working Man’s Holiday.
The first proposals for an official Workman’s Holiday suggested that the observance should include a street parade, followed by a celebration for the recreation of the workers and their families.
Today, Labor Day weekend signals the official end of summer. In keeping with the origins of the Holiday, it is still celebrated with parades and family get-togethers, picnics, parties, and barbeques.
In the words of President Grover Cleveland, who in 1894 signed into law the bill declaring Labor Day a national holiday, “A truly American sentiment recognizes the dignity of labor and the fact that honor lies in honest toil.”