Labor Day is synonymous with the end of summer, but its true significance is to honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.
Labor Day has been celebrated as a national holiday since 1894. Although there is some speculation as to who exactly came up with the idea, most historians credit Peter McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.
Its date, the first Monday in September, was chosen because it was halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882, in New York City.
The labor movement in the United States stemmed from the need to protect the common interest of workers. Organized labor unions fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. It efforts led to stop child labor, give health benefits and provide aid to workers who were injured or retired.
The rights and benefits we enjoy today were not simply handed out to America’s working men and women. They were fought for by men and women of courage and conviction, from the factory floors of the Industrial Revolution to the shopping aisles of today’s superstores. These brave workers stood up and spoke out to demand a fair shake; an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Many risked their lives; some gave their lives.
Songs of the American labor movement over the 20th century voiced grievances, affirmed the value of the worker to society, and expressed hope for life in a more just world. Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways is a collage of these voices – champions of the movement, singing songs with a passion and love for their fellow workers that rings just as true today as it did then. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joe Glazer, the Almanac Singers, and more chronicle the history of the American labor movement in stirring song. (www.folkways.si.edu)
Let’s never forget that much of what we take for granted including the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, health insurance, paid leave, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, all bear the union label. It was labor that helped build the largest middle class in history.
Happy Labor Day from the Mesimer Team!
The Only Thing that Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, by Thomas Geoghegan
The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, William P. Jones
Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, by Studs Terkel
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