"Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year," said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. The first Monday in September is dedicated to a commonly overlooked hero, the American worker. This day in honor of working people is a tribute to the contributions that workers have made to our nation’s strength, prosperity, standard of living, and ultimately to our founding ideals of democracy and freedom.
Labor Day History
It appears that two people had the same idea regarding a holiday for workers. Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the precursor to the American Federation of Labor, suggested setting aside a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."
Matthew Maguire, a New Jersey machinist, proposed a “workingmen’s holiday” while serving as secretary of the New York Central Labor Union in 1882. He wanted to do something to recognize the strides that were being made toward creating a better workplace in America.
The first Labor Day was unofficially celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City, when 10,000 people took to the streets in a parade that was organized by the Central Labor Union. They urged similar organizations in other cities to follow their example, and by l885, Labor Day was being celebrated on that date in many industrial centers of the country.
The first state to officially pass legislation in recognition of Labor Day was Oregon on February 2l, l887. During that year four more states - Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York - created a Labor Day holiday. By 1894, twenty-six other states had adopted this holiday in honor of workers. On June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act signed by President Grover Cleveland making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday.
The observance of Labor Day traditionally consisted of parades to display to the public the strength and solidarity of the trade and labor organizations of the community, followed by festivals for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. Later, speeches by prominent men and women were introduced to emphasize the economic and civic significance of the holiday. These speeches were followed by activities and exhibits sponsored by labor organizations to honor workers' achievements. In 1909, the Sunday before Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday, dedicated to spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
Labor Day Today
While Labor Day originally meant listening to speeches and watching parades, after a while it seems that people became tired of these mass celebrations. Today's Americans simply want to enjoy a day off work to play and rest. The meaning of Labor Day also appears to have changed to become a symbol of the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year. Nowadays, Labor Day is celebrated with picnics, barbeques, and department store sales.
Labor unions themselves have always been loved by some people and hated by others. Since the labor movement's furtive beginnings in the 1800's, union organizing was not easy. Employers sometimes used drastic means - like keeping doors locked - to keep union organizers out and employees under strict control, and strikes were often met with violence. Consequently, the labor movement had difficulty taking hold in America, and after it did, it gained a bad reputation for being associated with organized crime. Labor unions are still controversial in the U.S. today.
Nevertheless, as the long holiday weekend rolls around, it would be good to remember a few of the gains that might not have occurred without labor unions - the 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, and workman's compensation, to name a few. So fire up the grill, shop for bargains, and take a dip in the pool on Monday. While doing so, just remember that it was hard-working Americans who made this end-of-summer holiday possible.
In Australia, Labor Day is called "Eight Hour Day," to commemorate the successful struggle for a shorter working day. In Europe and Brazil, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1st.
I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Cesar Chavez was a labor leader who was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927. He was a migrant fieldworker in his youth, and as an adult he began to organize agricultural laborers in the 1950s. In 1962 he founded the National Farm Workers Association based in California and the Southwest. In 1966 this union was chartered by the AFL/CIO as the United Farm Workers of America; he remained its president until his death. Chavez attracted national attention in 1965 when he called for a boycott of table grapes; this strike and boycott lasted five years and ended with the first major victory for migrant workers in the U.S. He continued his struggles, both with the Teamsters Union that tried to take over his workers and with the large growers that refused to improve their wages and working conditions. At the time of his death in 1993, he was leading another national boycott of grapes to protest the use of pesticides harmful to workers.
Labor Day Activities for Kids
Labor Day Movies
NORMA RAE (1979, PG)-Sally Field plays a factory worker from a small town in North Carolina who becomes involved in labor union activities at the textile factory where she works after the health of her and her co-workers is compromised from breathing cotton dust. (Modern textile mills are now are free of cotton dust and the noisy factories have been reduced to the low hum of computers.) Although based on real events and a real person, this tale of corporate greed vs. oppressed workers was fictionalized. I like how it shows that the union organizer was smitten with Norma Rae, but he doesn't let their relationship go further than a handshake because he knows she is married. In 2011, the movie was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
FIST (1978, PG)-In this movie, Sylvester Stallone plays a blue-collar worker at the dawn of the labor movement in America. Johnny Kovak joins a local chapter of the Teamsters trade union in the 1930s and works his way up in the organization. The higher he climbs, the more ruthless he becomes. The film shows what conditions were like before the work force was unionized, and depicts what drove workers to form the original labor unions. Federated Inter-State Truckers (F.I.S.T.) is the union that Stallone's character helps organize and lead from the early years of violent strikes and lockouts to later years of labor successes breeding union corruption.
ON THE WATERFRONT (1954, PG)-This gripping melodrama is the fact-based story of a New Jersey longshoreman who confronts some corrupt labor leaders in an attempt to expose their criminal practices. Terry Malloy dreams of being a prize fighter while tending his pigeons and running errands for Johnny Friendly, the boss of the docker's union. After Terry witnesses a murder by two of Johnny's thugs, he decides to do something about it. Consequently, he is blacklisted and beaten for informing against the mobsters who have taken over the union. This movie was hard-hitting and controversial in its social criticism. Unionists at the time even wrongly accused it of being anti-American and promoting communism. Shot on location in black and white, its authentic oppressed look adds to the intensity of its subject. This masterpiece of film-making is considered one of the best films of the 20th century. Marlon Brando's performance is subtle yet spectacular. (His "I coulda been a contenda" speech is famous.) I still have vivid images of this film in my mind from a cinema class I took over 30 years ago!
Labor Day Websites
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