And just like that, it’s Labor Day, the “unofficial end of summer.”
So, aside from it being a federal holiday and long weekend, what is Labor Day all about?
In the beginning, labor unions brought about the end of tyranny by employers who used and abused their workers. When workers banded together as a unit or a “union,” their bargaining power increased. By the end of the nineteenth century, Labor Day in the United States was recognized as a federal holiday.
Within a score of years after the Civil War ended, the first labor union was formed. By the late nineteenth century, the movement had grown enough to get the attention of the federal government. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day, and a holiday. By organizing and standing by one another, unionized workers were able to bring about significant changes in employment law. Gone were the days when an employer could work a person half to death for a pittance in wages. With an organized workforce, business owners had to listen.
In the struggle between business owners, landowners, and their workers, what were some of the changes brought about by the labor movement?
Well, a shortened workweek, for one. Some companies’ records show sixteen-hour workdays, and six- to seven-day weeks in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Oh, and overtime was not even heard of then. All a person had time to do was work, eat, sleep. Quite a life, eh? After World War II, improvements in technology and production, and high participation in unions had trimmed that week to forty hours. Much improved from the work-eat-sleep-until-you-die cycle.
Child labor law is another change brought to us by organized unions. Once upon a time, ruthless industrialists would hire kids to maintain their factory equipment. This practice had a myriad of advantages for the employer. To begin with, children are much more malleable than adults, so the bosses would get less argument about dangerous assignments. And no doubt many of those assignments were extremely dangerous because a slip of a boy can fit in places a grown man would not. I couldn’t find any advantages to the kids who were in those situations. Today we call it “child endangerment.” Now, that isn’t to say that kids can’t work in a family business or begin learning a trade at a young age. It happens all the time. But laws now exist to limit the exploitation of children as laborers.
Union participation is down. And businesses fight tooth and nail to keep their employees from unionizing. One tactic that companies use to stifle union growth is the so-called “right-to-work” law passed in many state legislatures. It’s only one warning that we, as a workforce, are about to come full circle. Paychecks are declining, as are working hours for our poorest citizens as we struggle to feed, clothe, and house our families.
Labor Day is more than just a long weekend and a chance to get out in the sun to burn a few burgers and down a beer or two. Without the early labor organizers, we would still be working ourselves to death. Today, we can thank our forefathers that we only work a portion of the week. And that we have the time to kick back and enjoy a hot grill and a cold beverage.