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Labor Day: The tumultuous history of the last weekend of summer

Labor Day: The tumultuous history of the last weekend of summer

August 26, 2021
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This coming Labor Day will be characterized by backyard barbecues, back-to-school sales, and many employees enjoying the federal holiday.

But few people will stop to consider what this day represents in the transformation of what it means to be an average worker in America. And the tragic history that led to the basic workplace rules we tend to take for granted.

Up to the Industrial Revolution (which peaked in the mid-1800s) most Americans worked on farms.1 It was hard and dangerous work with the average farm producing only enough food to feed 3 to 5 people. Keeping the family farm going usually required young children to labor for long hours beside their parents.

So when industrialists began building factories in the cities, they had no problem attracting workers. Factory work was often repetitive and noisy, with few protocols for safety. But at least it wasn't farming. And so many people migrated to urban centers to work on the factory floor.2

However, with so many willing laborers, wages were low. And because idle machinery meant wasted production capacity, hours were long.

Workers could expect 12-hour workdays, 7 days a week. And because the pay was low, in order to earn enough collectively to put food on the table, families had to send their young children off to work beside the adults.3

As you can imagine, people were not happy with these circumstances. And the first Labor Day "parade," on September 5, 1882, was when tens of thousands of union laborers marched through New York to protest their deplorable working conditions. Many risked their livelihoods by participating.

Four years later in Chicago, a large demonstration for an 8-hour workday and safe conditions turned violent when police fired into the crowd, killing as many as six protesters (accounts vary). The following evening, at a rally to protest the shootings, someone detonated a bomb, killing seven policemen and four protesters. The result was, predictably, riots and more violence.

It would be another 30 years before an 8-hour workday was established for railroad workers in 1916. And yet another 22 years after that before it became the law of the land.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the struggle between labor and capital was seen as a zero-sum game. For one side to win, the other had to lose. What they could not have foreseen was the role technological innovation would play in expanding profitability while dramatically raising the standard of living for workers.

Today, while we still debate issues like what constitutes a fair minimum wage, what are reasonable business regulations, and what should be the responsibilities of employers and workers, the arguing is done at the policy level.

Certainly, there are winners and losers, and poorly conceived laws. But we don't have the riots and bloodshed of the past.

And come the Tuesday after Labor Day, our young children will be lining up for school instead of marching into a factory, and we can go to a job where our wages are competitive and our safety is a priority.