Happy Labor Day! What are your plans? And why do we have this day off of work? Is it to celebrate summer ending and school starting? In Nebraska, it might be to celebrate what is often the first weekend of Husker football and the last weekend of the State Fair.
But are there other reasons? Just like the origins of workers’ compensation, we can attribute the fact that we have a holiday to the American worker.
Sources explain in varying amounts of detail the controversy over who founded Labor Day and how the “workingmen’s holiday” was celebrated on that day. But what isn’t up for debate is that unions and their workers were a very important part of developing Labor Day to celebrate workers’ contributions.
I am pleased to share that the state of Nebraska was actually one of the first to celebrate Labor Day and had passed legislation recognizing the holiday by 1890. Other states that were Labor Day pioneers included Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
There are some romantic notions about how Labor Day came into being, and some sources even gloss over some of the gritty details, but just like the beginnings of worker’s compensation, the “way we used to be” in this nation was not ideal for many workers. Politics was involved in Labor Day’s recognition as a federal holiday. “Conceived by America’s labor unions as a testament to their cause, the legislation sanctioning the holiday was shepherded through Congress amid labor unrest and signed by President Grover Cleveland as a reluctant election-year compromise,” according to http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/business/july-dec01/labor_day_9-2.html. Folks were frustrated with the way President Cleveland stopped a workers’ strike involving workers who built and used Pullman railroad cars by deploying troops after Cleveland made the strike a federal crime. So to appease people, specifically Congress, six days after the Pullman strike was broken, the president signed the bill creating Labor Day, but he was not re-elected anyway.
Originally, Labor Day celebrations had a rhythm, purpose and pattern, including: “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday,” according to http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm.
Although this model hasn’t been followed throughout the decades, think of the powerful imagery in the quote below of workers uniting after a typical work week that lasted much longer than 40 hours.
“In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it ‘the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.’” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/business/july-dec01/labor_day_9-2.html
I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again, our commitment to working families and workers, like those who were vital to the success of the first Labor Day, is why we do the work that we do and have a passion for it. So I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on this holiday for workers in the United States.
All of us at Rehm, Bennett & Moore would like to express our gratitude to the American workers who have built and are building this country. Have a relaxing and inspiring Labor Day, friends, however you choose to celebrate it!