As the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer, the first Monday in September—Labor Day—celebrates American workers as the backbone of the nation. Although today the holiday is associated with cookouts and picnics, Labor Day in the US came about as the result of hard-fought labor struggles against powerful corporate interests that continually exploited the rank-and-file workers responsible for company profitability. Today, both native and immigrant workers enjoy common labor rights thanks to workers’ sacrifices and struggle from decades past.
As a global leader in the Industrial Age that began in the late 1800’s, America’s workers were a central component in shepherding the nation a modern industrial power. Mines, factories and shipyards acted as economic linchpins through to the first half of the twentieth century. With this, abusive industry practices that offered no workplace safety requirements and allowed for child labor became the norm. In response, workers formed unions in an effort toward gaining a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Dependent on workers to keep industry humming along without a hiccup, however, meant many industrialists were threatened by the unions. Fighting their own workers, industrial managers were aggressive in combating work disruptions as unions called strikes in an effort to force negotiation.
Historically, the move in creating Labor Day as a national holiday dates back to 1886. Early in May of that year, workers in Chicago protesting for an eight-hour workday clashed with police. The day of the incident, known as the Haymarket Affair, was soon adopted as International Worker’s Day. While many other countries of the world continue to celebrate their own versions of Labor Day in early May, politicians in the US wanted to avoid the Haymarket Affair association. When Labor Day was officially adopted as a national holiday in 1894, President Grover Cleveland proposed the celebration for the current first September Monday date to avoid the association.
While unions representing heavy industrial workers are no longer central to the cause of workplace rights, the service sector has taken up the cause. Notably, fast food workers who are demanding higher wages are battling for the cause today.
Sue Chinn, the National Campaign Manager for the Alliance for Citizenship, puts it this way, “Today’s fast food strikes are emblematic of the national fight for fairness and respect for all workers—both for native-born and for immigrant workers. We stand united with the fast food workers around the world and to those that came before them as we all fight to lift our families and communities out of poverty and for a better life.”