By 1894, many states had enacted laws setting aside a day to honor labor, but it was on June 28th of that year that President Grover Cleveland signed an act into law providing a federal holiday on the first Monday in September to celebrate the role of labor in our society. More than 125 years out from this date, Labor Day has come to mark many different social points in our national life. In fashion, for instance, certainly in years past, it marked the point on the annual calendar beyond which white (lightweight) clothing brought out of storage on Memorial Day should not be worn (a rule reportedly flouted by fashion designer Coco Chanel). In many states, Labor Day still defines the end of summer for primary and secondary school students, the point after which they walk their personal version of “The Green Mile” in the return to school.
It is natural that holidays on the calendar, especially after a long period of time, serve as demarcation points for seasons and other aspects of our social life. Regarding Labor Day, however, although it may signal the coming the return to school for some students, it should not be viewed simply as an “End of Summer” celebration.
At the end of the 19th century, labor faced significant challenges.
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.
People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities[,] and breaks.
In response to these conditions, workers organized to bargain for basic rights in the workplace, and, at times, there was significant social unrest and economic disruption. What arose from that strife, however, was a movement that rejected the false ideologies of communists and revolutionaries, embraced business unionism, and gave us benefits that we now may take for granted, including the five-day work week, the eight-hour workday, safe and sanitary working conditions, and prohibitions against exploiting child labor.
We wish everyone a safe and healthy holiday with family and friends.