At outdoor barbeques today, at family gatherings, at the beaches and everywhere that Americans spend their Labor Day holiday, few will reflect upon the sacrifices that made this a national holiday, and on the achievements of labor over more than a century that have provided workers with a lot more than a day off at what has become the unofficial end of summer.
From ending child labor and protecting workers who lose their jobs, from a guaranteed minimum wage to minimum standards that protect workers on the job, it has been the labor movement that has been at the forefront of protecting Americans at work.
I can recall during my days at the Providence Journal, where I was president and then first administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, being assured by my adversary, the labor relations manager, that had it not been for the unions at the Journal, employees would not have achieved the level of wages and benefits they enjoyed.
The U.S. Labor Department officially describes Labor Day as “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
While Labor Day was being celebrated in many states, it did not become a national holiday until the 1894 Pullman Railroad Strike in Chicago, during a time of economic decline in America, when Pullman cut its workforce in half and decreased wages. The newly formed American Railway Union (ARU), founded by Eugene V. Debs, boasted a membership of 465 local unions and 150,000 members. The ARU struck, first in Chicago, spreading nationwide, with a reported half million workers across America staging a boycott that incapacitated rail traffic across the country.
President Grover Cleveland sent 3,000 troops to Chicago to end the strike. A dozen strikers were killed, scores wounded, and many jailed. In its aftermath, Cleveland, declared Labor Day as a national holiday. It did little to improve working conditions, but the Pullman Strike was the start of an era of heightened unionization.
While Labor Day became a national holiday in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike, it was first celebrated years before for the first time in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union.
Understanding the history of Labor Day is important, but maybe more important, at a time when unions are under attack and at its lowest membership levels in decades, is to recognize labor’s accomplishments.
Here are some of the accomplishments that Daily KOS says Labor Unions have been instrumental initiating; Breaks at Work; Paid Vacation; Sick Leave; Social Security; Minimum Wage; Civil Rights Act/Title VII (Prohibits Employer Discrimination); Eight-Hour Work Day; Overtime Pay; Child Labor Laws; Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA); 40-Hour Work Week; Workers’ Compensation; Unemployment Insurance; Pensions; Workplace Safety Standards and Regulations; Employer Health Care Insurance; Collective Bargaining Rights for Employees; Wrongful Termination Laws; Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967; Whistleblower Protection Laws; Veteran’s Employment and Training Services (VETS); Compensation increases and Evaluations (Raises); Sexual Harassment Laws; Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA); Holiday Pay; Employer Paid Dental, Life, and Vision Insurance; Privacy Rights; Pregnancy and Parental Leave; Military Leave; The Right to Strike; Equal Pay Acts of 1963 and 2011, requiring equal pay for men and women; and Laws Ending Sweatshops in the United States.