Labor Day construction workers

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

In practice, holidays mostly give us excuses to enjoy a break; time to relax and forget the cares of work. Meanwhile, the one national holiday explicitly meant to give us a break from our work, school and our daily chores is the one many of us know the least about. Yet this is a holiday that impacts our daily lives in more tangible ways than most; Labor Day. 

Labor Days is a national holiday held the first Monday in every September. Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is an approbation not noted for its patriotic or religious rituals like Christmas and the fourth of July. It is not a day dedicated to an event or time for us to cherish and remember. For most people, it simply marks the last weekend of summer.

Most Americans think of Labor Day as the last time to party before the summer ends. They have picnics, barbecues and family reunions and enjoy water sports at lakes and beaches. For sports fans, it's the start of the fall and the long anticipated football season. For school children it marks the unwelcome beginning of the school year. Like many other holidays, Americans enjoy the day off, but few know how or why Labor Day became a holiday for American workers. Since it would shut down production lines and be an added expense for businesses, there was really no reason to give workers a day to celebrate. It took 12 years and a huge tragedy to recognize Labor Day.

According to the Department of Labor, the first Labor Day occurred in September 1882 in New York City. It was organized by the New York Central Labor Union and several other key unions who encouraged other cities and states to honor workers as well. This was organized as an effort to bring attention to the nation’s workforce and the need for better working conditions; more paid holidays and shorter hours. For one day, workers traded their assembly lines for the picket line and protested. The next year, cities and states around our nation joined in this tradition. Originally this was not a holiday but a movement by people to bring awareness to the needs of American workers.

“A man is not paid for having a head and hands, but for using them.”

– Elbert Hubbard

Although many states had joined New York in celebrating Labor Day on Sept. 2, it was not until 1894 that Labor Day was declared a national holiday after President Grover Cleveland responded to the infamous Pullman Railway Strike. Cleveland panicked, and sent in the National Guard, who used unprecedented physical force to end this strike, which resulted in the death of 30 workers. When the dust settled, the Democratic Party and Cleveland attempted to atone for this massacre and win back voters in the labor unions, and officially christened Labor Day as a national holiday.

What labor had tried to obtain for 12 years ended up as a consolation for Cleveland’s abuse.

By the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in an average of 70 hours a week. These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day and a five-day work week. They also petitioned for more days off for workers, such as a Labor Day holiday and higher wages. But by the time it became a national holiday, American workers were making more than any workers in the world. And many politicians and business owners were in favor of giving workers more time off their jobs. Workers who had few days off were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment, dining out or shopping in their local retail stores.

“Through hard work, perseverance and a faith in God, you can live your dreams.”

– Ben Carson

The Gilded Age from the 1870s to 1900 was an era of unmatched economic growth that benefited labor the most. American wages grew much higher, longer than any time in our history. The rapid expansion of industrialization led to real wage growth of 60 percent between 1860 and 1890, as it spread across the ever-increasing labor force. The average yearly wage for labor in industry rose from $380 in 1880 to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48 percent. Railroads expanded to meet the demands of our growing factory system. The mining industry couldn’t even pay people enough money to work for them. It was this key period of growth that made America the envy of every country in the world.

"The Industrial Revolution caused a centuries-long shift in power to the West.”

– Dennis C. Blair

Most of the world had celebrated the accomplishments of organized labor on May 1. That date was established to commemorate the events of the Haymarket Massacre on May 4, 1886. It was the fateful day a peaceful demonstration to protest the police killing of several workers turned into a violent confrontation. The police killed one person and maimed many others attempting to disperse a crowd of protesters. Cleveland and the Democratic Party purposely chose Sept. 2 rather than May 1 to recognize Labor Day as a national holiday. They did not want to associate the folly of Cleveland and his party with the sentimentality surrounding May Day.

"These are days of special perplexity and depression, and the path of public duty is unusually rugged."

– Grover Cleveland

Today, Labor Day is no longer about trade union members marching down the street with banners and their tools of trade. The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off. It is a day originally commissioned for America to celebrate the arduous work and achievements of workers and unions. And we should be grateful for those who worked so hard to give us the 40-hour work week, holidays, child labor laws, and the safe environments to work in today. Although the battles over these issues are history, we must never forget they would never have been achieved without the freedoms these workers entertained under free market capitalism.

While we remember the efforts of those who fought hard to give us the many protections we have in the workplace today, let us never forget the role capitalism played in bringing about Labor Day. We must also always remember the importance that capitalism played in the gains labor made.

Although Labor Day was originated by unions, we should honor all work and all careers, not just unions. Proclaiming any day an official holiday means little to many in private industry without a union job. And there are many minimum wage earners working in retail stores we go to on Labor Day. Others labor at professions we depend on for essential products. Many government agencies provide protection services; transportation and emergency care continue to function for us as well. And those that maintain our state and federal national parks do not get any time off on Labor Day.

Above all, we must never forget the efforts of our entrepreneurs and other capitalists that took the risks and made the investments during the Industrial Revolution and still do so today. They are not only supporting their families; their hard work allows us to support ours also. We should thank them also on Labor Day.

On Labor Day, it’s important to remember it is the capitalist enterprises that have made this day possible. And we must never forget the importance of maintaining them if we wish to continue reaping the harvest and blessings of freedom, and enjoy many more future Labor Days.

American workers, keep America great!

“A hundred times every day, I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

– Albert Einstein

Contributing Columnist

William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.