(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)
On Tuesday September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from city hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first-ever Labor Day parade. Despite the threat of losing their jobs, participants took an unpaid day off to honor American workers and draw attention to grievances they had with employers.
And the list of grievances was long. During this time, the average American worked twelve hour days, seven days a week, just to make a basic living, with children as young as six toiling alongside adults.
As years passed, more states began to hold these parades, but Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later. A bloody strike by railway workers brought the issue of workers’ rights to the public eye and provoked Congress to officially make the first Monday of September Labor Day.
Today, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” And the saying is true: unions won the eight-hour day standard we all enjoy today. What many people don’t realize is that workers and their unions had to fight for the eight-hour day for nearly 3/4 of a century (beginning in August 1866) before any national reform was enacted. The dream of an eight-hour work day finally became a reality in 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made it legally a full day of work throughout the United States.
The Struggle Continues
Although many Americans have now come to associate Labor Day as just a day off from work or the end of summer relaxation, it’s important not to forget the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters, whose brave acts earned us the working rights we now possess. Unions have historically laid the groundwork for impressive grassroots campaigns to strengthen America’s middle class and rebuild the economy in hard times. As we face the greatest recession since the Great Depression, unions continue to be at the heart of efforts to pass healthcare reform, restore economic balance and bring prosperity to all Americans.
This Labor Day, let’s remind members of Congress just how many working families are still struggling to make ends meet under the strain of skyrocketing health care costs. Help send Congress back to DC with a mission to reform healthcare by joining us at send-off rallies across the country.
Events being held by SEIU and HCAN across the country on Labor Day, September 7th in Arkansas, Colorado, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington state are listed after the break.
About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.
This post originally appeared in the SEIU blog on September 7, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.