To many Americans, Labor Day is the last day of a fun-filled three-day weekend that marks the official end of summer and the beginning of fall. It’s a day spent with family and friends having backyard barbecues, pool time and end-of-summer short getaways.
But there’s an interesting history behind the national holiday, one that people rarely discuss at the backyard BBQ, and it has played an important role in how people live and work today.
During the late 19th century, many American workers had to endure labor intensive 12-hour workdays, often with poor pay and unsafe working environments. Children were also put to work, sometimes as young as six to seven years old. Children, but also adults, felt hopeless in many instances and did not believe that they had a choice. Over the years, trade and labor movements worked to institute reforms in the working hours and conditions.
On September 5, 1882, between 10,000 and 20,000 people marched down the streets of New York City, carrying flags, badges and musical instruments, according to the DOL. Even more people joined at the giant picnic that marked the end.
Beginning in 1885, individual states began considering legislation recognizing Labor Day as a holiday, DOL said. By 1894, 31 states had made it law. On June 28, 1884, Congress made the first Monday in September a legal, national holiday known as Labor Day.
We feel like we have come a very long way since 1882, 136 years in our history of the United States has elapsed. Certainly, we have made great strides in abolishing child labor. We far better understand the implications of a good education. We have made strides as well in improving the physical working conditions. Many of us reading this are not working in hard labor jobs, we feel safe, we are not working in sweatshops. We sit in air-conditioned offices and toil away at our desks.
Have we made strides though in celebrating labor? To celebrate something means that you enjoy it, look forward to it, get satisfaction from it. We celebrate Birthdays and weddings and anniversaries, the events and their remembrances that have significance to us in a positive way. And yet, how many people do you know who don’t want to retire, whose work provides real meaning in their lives, who have the opportunity to create and to offer the best of themselves to others each and every day, who enjoy getting up in the morning and look forward to what the day holds? Sadly, I know very few. The vast majority are starting countdowns to retirement that may last years or even decades longer than they planned. Instead of living the life of their dreams through what they can contribute at work, they are putting that life on hold for a future that may or may not exist.
We owe it to ourselves, now that we do have a choice, and those that we work with to take the responsibility to bring our best selves to work and to pursue it with meaning. To be proud of the difference we make and the ways in which we contribute. If we can’t do that, we owe it to ourselves to be brave enough to do something different. I think that would be the best way to celebrate labor.