Labor Day: Celebrate and learn America’s rich labor history

Blak-and-white illustration of big crowd in streets, in lines

Labor Day in New York, 1882. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4: Parades, barbecues and travel abound this Labor Day weekend, but alongside the festivities, consider giving this holiday the merit it really deserves: a look at the history and relevance of labor in the lives of American workers. Labor Day is the result of the long struggle for recognition by the American labor movement; the first Labor Day celebration, celebrated in 1882 in New York City, attracted more than 10,000 workers who marched through the streets. Beyond recognizing the social and economic achievements of American workers, Labor Day makes us aware of the countless workers who have, together, contributed to the strength and prosperity of their country.

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) wrote the first encyclical on labor and is often described as the founder of Catholic social teaching.

Labor & Faith

The value of human labor is echoed throughout the Abrahamic tradition, including stories and wisdom about the nature of labor in both the Bible and the Quran. Biblical passages ask God to “prosper the work of our hands” (Psalm 90), while the Quran refers to the morality of conducting oneself in the public square.

The Catholic church has been preaching on behalf of workers for more than a century. The landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of revolutionary change”) was published in 1891 and has been described as a primer on the rights of laborers who face abusive conditions in the workplace. This became one of the central themes of Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate. In 1981, he published his own lengthy encyclical, Laborem Exercens (“On human work”). Then, a decade later, John Paul returned to this milestone in Catholic teaching in Centisimus Annus (“Hundredth year”).

AMERICAN LABOR DAY: A HISTORY

At the end of the 19th century, many Americans had to work 12-hour days every day of the week to make a living. Child labor was at its height in mills, factories and mines, and young children earned only a portion of an adult’s wage. Dirty air, unsafe working conditions and low wages made labor in many cities a dangerous occupation. As working conditions worsened, workers came together and began forming labor unions: through unions, workers could have a voice by participating in strikes and rallies. Through unions, Americans fought against child labor and for the eight-hour workday.

Did you know? The Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”—dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

Some labor demonstrations turned violent—such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which is remembered, to this day, in May 1 labor holidays around the world. Instead of a May holiday, however, American leaders preferred to remove “our” holiday from that tragedy by four months, in the civic calendar. Instead, American holiday planners encouraged street parades and public displays of the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations in each community—including cheerful festivities and recreation for workers and their families. Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday, in 1887, and by 1896, Labor Day was a national holiday.

LABOR AND UNIONS TODAY

Experts estimate that union membership has now decreased to less than one in eight, though numbers are still strong in specific fields, such as education. Unfortunately, many retail stores today work their employees extra hours on Labor Day, to push Labor Day sales. That means a lot—considering that a large portion of Americans workers work in the retail industry.

NEWS, RECIPES & MORE

A Jerry Lewis marathon: The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was associated with Labor Day weekend from 1966 through 2014, and so in honor of the star who died on August 20, at age 91, Turner Classic Movies will host a daylong marathon of films featuring Jerry Lewis this Labor Day. Learn more, here.

Labor Day and school: Why do some states choose to still begin the school year after Labor Day—and how does that choice affect kids? The Atlantic asked these questions in a recent article.

Travel: Looking for last-minute Labor Day weekend travel ideas? The Huffington Post offers suggestions, as does the Chicago Sun-Times.

Cookout Recipes: Hosting or attending a cookout or barbecue for Labor Day? Try a recipe from Food Network. To accompany summer recipes, Forbes lists the 10 best American white wines under $20, for Labor Day.

 

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