Most Americans will celebrate Labor Day tomorrow by taking the day off. I wonder how many of them know, or even care, about the meaning and history of Labor Day in the USA.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, grew out of the labor movement in America in the late 19th Century. It is dedicated, and rightly so, to “the social and economic achievements of American workers.” It is our way of paying our annual national tribute to the countless contributions American workers have made to the prosperity, power, and well-being of our nation.
Slowly, but surely, our nation has come to realize and recognize the meaning and importance of Labor Day. First came municipal ordinances in 1885 and 1886. From these “baby steps” a movement emerged to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced in the New York legislature.
However, the first bill to become state law was enacted by Oregon on Feb. 21, 1887. Later that year, four more states -- Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York -- passed Labor Day holiday laws. By the end of that decade, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had also done so. And by 1894, 23 other states had followed suit to honor American workers. On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of every year a legal federal holiday in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.
As we pause to celebrate Labor Day tomorrow, let’s also reflect on the fact this annual holiday to honor workers and their achievements originated during one of American labor’s most trying times. In the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in the USA was at its height. The average American worker toiled away 12 hours a day, seven days a week, just to barely get by. Worse, in some states, children as young as 5 and 6 labored hard in factories, mills and mines around our country, while earning a fraction of their adult co-workers’ wages.
Meanwhile, American workers of all ages, especially recent immigrants, frequently faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with limited access to breaks, fresh air, and sanitary facilities.
Clearly, America’s workers have come a long way in the 123 years since Labor Day became an official holiday in their honor. They stand today on the shoulders of those generations who paved the way for the progress we’ve made in improving the lot of workers who deserve both recognition and remuneration for their labor.
Sure, Labor Day also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans. So, let’s make it a day of respite from work and have some fun with family and friends, even as we honor our nation’s workers for their dedication and the dignity of their labor.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.