Labor Day in America and how it became a federal holiday

Labor Day in America and how it became a federal holiday

As we celebrate Labor Day, getting ready for family and friends around the pool or barbecue, have you ever thought about why Labor Day has started? Today, many Americans enjoy paid time off on Labor Day, but on September 5, 1882, the first time Labor Day was celebrated, it was very different.

Defended by Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters Union and Mathew McGuire of the Machinists Union, 10,000 workers took unpaid leave to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City to protest the conditions of the time. The typical workday was 12 hours, six or seven days a week, with weekly wages ranging from $ 0.55 to $ 1.20 in the mid to late 1800s. Yes, it’s weekly – not hourly. Adjusted for inflation, this stands at around $ 36 per week today. In short: long hours of work in dangerous conditions for a salary that does not support a family.

Our industrial history is full of accidents causing tens or hundreds of deaths per incident. On December 6, 1907, in Monongah, West Virginia, an underground mine explosion killed 362 of the 380 men and boys working that day. On January 10, 1860, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Pemberton Mill factory collapsed without warning, killing 145 workers and injuring 166.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was one of the most infamous incidents, which helped organize the work and start reforming safety and building codes. On March 25, 1911, a Saturday afternoon in New York City, 600 workers, mostly young women, were working when a fire broke out in a trash can on the 8th floor. Workers attempted to put out the blaze, but found rotten pipes and rusty valves. The fire could not be brought under control and quickly spread. The elevator broke after only four trips. Exits were locked to prevent unauthorized breaks, and firefighting ladders could only reach seven floors. The only way to escape the suffocation or the sharp burn was to jump.

“In 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers died from burns or suffocated by smoke, 36 died in the elevator shaft and 58 died jumping on the sidewalks. With two more dead later from their injuries, a total of 146 people were killed by the blaze. “-

During the industrial revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s, if you went to work, there was a good chance you wouldn’t go home. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania issued a “Industry death calendarWhich placed a red “x” for every person who died in the county every day from July 1906 to June 1907. An “x” was missing within 70 days and 526 workers died that year in a single county. If you went home, you would probably be treating injuries, broken bones, amputations, or worse.

Lewis Hine’s photograph provides insight into the working men, women, girls and boys and the working conditions they face. Hine, investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, traveled the country photographing child labor conditions in all industries, including children in coal mines, meat packing factories, textile factories and canneries. Often times he worked his way into factories to get past managers who didn’t want public scrutiny. Discover his fascinating work at the National Archives.

While today’s workplaces are not free from danger, injury or death, we’ve come a long way. But the way we got here was hard won, sometimes resulting in violence. Take into account Haymarket Riot of 1886, when police clashed with union protesters in Chicago, or the Pullman strike in May 1894 which pitted railway workers fighting for safer conditions and better hours against federal troops and an army of private detectives.

While most of us celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September with the day off, it’s easy to forget that Labor Day history is filled with struggle, courage, challenge, injury and death.

Take a moment to remind yourself of how we got the eight hour workday, overtime, machine guards, air quality monitoring, respirators, lockout / tagout procedures, equipment fall protection, workers’ compensation insurance and standards that provide all of us with a safe and healthy workplace. And don’t forget the thousands of retail, hospitality, restaurant, emergency and healthcare workers who work on Labor Day. To you, we offer you a big “thank you”.

So on this Labor Day remember that it is not just a holiday, it is a holiday for work. Without the lives and members of the workers who came before us, and the unions and leaders who spoke out, there’s a good chance more of us will be spending that first Monday in September in a hospital – or, worse yet. , a morgue.

For a more in-depth discussion of the origins of Labor Day and the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, check out the latest MEMIC Safety Experts Podcast – How Occupational Safety Influenced Labor Day – Celebrating the American Worker.

By Peter Koch

Courtesy of MEMIC Safety Net Blog


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Disclaimer: publishes independently generated writing by various stakeholders in the workers’ compensation industry. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of

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