Not so long ago, most Americans had a standard workday – 9 to 5 or an eight-hour shift at a factory. They had designated time for lunch, and expected to head home when their shift ended.
But that type of workday has mostly gone the way of the horse and buggy. People work until the job is done, or they put in 50 or 60 hours a week to show their diligence, or they take on overtime or extra shifts because there’s no one else to do the job or they are given no choice.
So while Labor Day was established to honor the worker, in practice it’s a bit different. Most stores are open and offer sales to bring in customers, and if the day is given as a holiday, many businesses expect their employees to work extra to make up for it.
Labor Day in 2015 is little more than an end-of-summer holiday – barbecues, parties, a last visit to the ocean or the lake, perhaps some fireworks – and then it’s back to business as usual.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day 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 the U.S.”
As the country changed from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, labor unions began organizing strikes and rallies to protest dangerous conditions and seek better hours and pay. Some of those events turned violent. And some gave rise to what would become Labor Day.
On Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on, and states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress legalized Labor Day in 1894.
Today, most of us don’t give a lot of thought to the workers who fought for basic health and safety rights more than 100 years ago. Indeed, in today’s political climate, presidential candidates champion their fights against unions, argue over whether to increase the minimum wage, and suggest Americans need to put in even more hours at work.
So perhaps this coming Labor Day, as northern neighbors that we are of the cities that began the American Industrial Revolution, we might take a moment or two to recall what this “day off” is all about.