On the first Monday of September, the United States celebrates Labor Day and the contributions that workers made to shape America into what it is today. According to the Department of Labor, Congress officially made Labor Day a national holiday on June 28, 1894. However, the first municipal ordinances regarding this holiday were passed between 1885 and 1886.
Britannica credits Peter J. McGuire, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, with having the idea for a general holiday for the laboring classes in 1882. However, Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York, has also been given credit for being the founder of Labor Day.
Labor Day is traditionally celebrated with picnics, parades and parties, and it has also evolved to include inspirational speeches. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor convention made a resolution to make the Sunday before Labor Day, Labor Sunday to celebrate the spiritual and educational part of the labor movement.
According to History, Labor Day was created during one of the more dismal times in the labor movement. The late 1800s were the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
During this time, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to make a living. In fact, children as young as five years old worked in factories and mills, making a fraction of the wage of adults.
During this time, labor unions started to appear, strikes started to occur, and many lives were lost. Two of the more infamous riots were held in Chicago. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 caused workers and policemen to lose their lives, and the 1894 Pullman Strike – organized by activist Eugene V. Debs – crippled the railroad industry as a whole. The Pullman Strike resulted in labor laws to protect workers nationwide.
However, labor activists didn’t stop with the creation of Labor Day. According to PBS, several activists have strides in the 1900s. Many people do not know that the labor activists A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Similarly, activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta organized the 1966 farmworkers’ strike. During this strike, almost 100 people marched 280 miles from Delano to Sacramento, according to the National Park Service.
To further help workers, automaker Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour workweek in 1926, but it later became a national standard in 1940. This era also saw the appearance of the minimum wage, introduced in 1938 at 25 cents per hour. According to Dollar Times, that minimum wage would be $5.15 today, allowing for an annual inflation of 3.62%.
In 1988, the U.S. Department of Labor established the Labor Hall of Honor to honor those Americans whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor. The first inductee was Cyrus S. Ching in 1989, and the last was “The Essential Workers of the Coronavirus Pandemic” in 2022.
In the 2000s, there was a 33% loss in manufacturing jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.6% in 2010 after the Great Recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009.
However, the major impact on labor was in 2020 with COVID-19. Pew Research notes that unemployment rate reached 14%. Now, there are now trending layoffs in many fields, such as education and technology.
So this Labor Day, take some time to remember all of the contributions that workers have made to the U.S. economy and what else you can do to celebrate the contributions to the workforce. How can we change the business climate and change workers’ rights for the better as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects? These questions should be considered as we look at the history of Labor Day and what the labor activists before us represented.
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