Americans are a proud people, and as such, we are also known for misinterpreting the often dark reasons behind why we celebrate our holidays. Many holidays are actually rooted in victories over very undesirable circumstances, but we don’t necessarily realize that when we’re picnicking or drinking margs. As another commonly misunderstood holiday approaches, I thought it pertinent to examine the relevancy of Labor Day to our current economic and political climate.
Labor Day occurs on the first Monday in September, and for some people, that means they get a three-day weekend. For others, this weekend holiday represents the end of summer, with the holiday marking the last free weekend before school and the fall season start. However, this is not why Labor Day was originally created. The reason behind its creation ties back to the horrific working conditions and rampant greed that was so common in the 19th century business structure.
Labor Day History
In the 1800s, industrial workers and those in manufacturing worked seven days a week, 12 hours per day. Even though it was against the law, children could still be found in factories, mines and mills across the U.S. The country was buzzing from the impact of interchangeable parts, the industrial revolution and other new manufacturing processes, so work was being shifted away from agriculture and into industrialization. To make a basic living, many workers had to suffer long hours under harsh conditions.
While unions existed at the time, they weren’t as powerful or plentiful as they are today. However, by organizing protests and strikes, unions were gaining traction and finding ways to make working conditions better for employees. The first Labor Day was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882.
Because the national government and many industries didn’t recognize Labor Day as a holiday, workers were asked to strike for a day so they could march in a parade and then eat at a picnic afterward. The plan was to have this demonstration occur on the same day every year. In June 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill that made Labor Day a national holiday.
Labor Day was created as a protest to fight against long working hours and no vacations. Workers marched in parades so the community could celebrate their contributions and the industries that kept the country running. People gave speeches that highlighted the efforts and accomplishments made by American workers. Then, a large picnic was held so workers could get together and enjoy a good meal.
Labor Day Today
Today, Labor Day might be a national holiday, but not everyone gets the day off. The bill only covers federal employees, and each state has the right to declare their own holidays. While most of them do recognize Labor Day, some private employers don’t have to give their employees the day off — and many of them don’t. If you enjoy spending Labor Day weekend shopping, you’ll know many retailers are open and their employees are working.
While some places might honor the traditions of Labor Day with parades and community-wide barbecues, the vast majority of cities and communities don’t. Most workers still get the day off and may attend picnics with their friends or family, but many people don’t realize what we’re celebrating is the workers’ contributions.
The Roots of Labor Day Are Still Relevant
The fight that led to Labor Day’s creation is actually more relevant today than many realize. The contributions of the American worker are once again being taken advantage of. Large corporations have the option of shipping their industry overseas for cheaper labor, leaving communities and individuals devastated by closing plants and losing jobs. Minimum wage in the U.S. hovers around $7.25 per hour. Any worker that works more than 40 hours per week at the same job is entitled to overtime pay, but there is no statutory right to vacations, breaks or leave time.
Many corporations will do what they can to lessen how much they pay their workers, including cutting hours to less than full-time so they don’t have to pay for benefits. This was admittedly an unfortunate side effect of Obamacare. Obamacare had great intentions, but was flawed because it failed to take into account avaricious business owners who don’t want to have to pay for health insurance for their employees.
At first glance, the move might make sense to strictly-business types of people because companies obviously want to make a profit in this land of opportunity. What they don’t consider, however, is that it can actually hurt both the employee and the employer due to the high turnover rates from employees not earning enough in wages to make a living.
Additionally, the aspect of Labor Day that ensures workers are allowed time off is actually favorable for most companies and politicians. This is because when employees have time off and enough money, they spend it, which includes purchases like vacations, cars and houses that can contribute favorably to the economy.
If Labor Day was started in response to the average worker not getting enough time off or being able to work in reasonable conditions, then it’s certainly time again to re-evaluate the United States’ company policies and pay rate. With enough time and fair earnings in their hands, the average American worker is more than happy to contribute constructively to the economy and society.
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