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A Reflection on Labor Day
The last lazy days of summer—and a history of struggle
Growing up in the Midwest, Labor Day was always emotionally complicated. This was the unofficial end of the summer, the beginning of the end of those golden, radiant days of light and liberty. The day after we’d go back to school.
My family would always have a barbecue. And while there were other times we had hot dogs and hamburgers, grilled chicken and chips, ice cream and pie, they always tasted better on Labor Day—almost as if this was a final meal before the boom came down. This was farewell to the lazy days of summer fun. This was a happy-sad day.
As a Chicago kid, it never really dawned on me to reflect on how Labor Day was a holiday to commemorate the hard work of men and women. I honestly didn’t think about how many adults might need a Monday off or how exactly this holiday was meant to commemorate workers and labor history. That would come later when I studied labor history and covered labor as a budding reporter.
As a graduate student, I was particularly drawn to Chicago’s Haymarket Riot, also known as the Haymarket Massacre, on May 4, 1886. The event emerged out of a national strike, involving over 300,000 workers across the country, that started on May 1 to advocate for an eight-hour workday. It also followed a violent confrontation on May 3 when striking workers at the McCormack Reaper Works in Chicago attacked scabs and several hundred policemen responded brutally, leading to the deaths of two workers.
In protest, the International Working People’s Association, an anarchist group seeking to empower the working class, called for a protest on May 4 at Haymarket Square. Among the attendees was Carter Harrison, the sympathetic Chicago mayor, and Albert Parsons, the group’s leader (a former Confederate soldier who, intriguingly, became a radical Republican and married a former slave).
Not long after the mayor departed, calling the event peaceful, someone in the crowd threw a dynamite bomb after the large contingent of police sought to disperse the demonstrators. By the time police gunfire was over, eight officers were dead and dozens of police and civilians were injured.
In response, eight anarchists and foreign workers were rounded up, all of whom had alibis (only two were even there that day). While none were identified as the bomber, their inflammatory speeches led to their being charged as accessories to the murder.
After a hasty, partisan trial, in which all 12 jurors acknowledged they were prejudiced against the defendants, the jury reached a guilty verdict in three hours and seven of the men were sentenced to hang for their crimes. (Four were hanged the next year, one committed suicide in prison and two were eventually pardoned.)
The events of those first days of May—both the battle for workers’ rights and specifically the push for a shortened eight-hour workday—became an inspiration for the globally celebrated May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day. In America, the first Labor Day celebration organized by labor activists was in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882; by 1894, 24 states had recognized the holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland made it a national holiday on the first Monday every September.
But the launching of a federal holiday didn’t mean the eight-hour workday quickly followed suit. An 1890 government report tracking manufacturing employees found that they were still working on average 100 hours a week.
It would be decades before significant change was visible, requiring the hard work of labor unions and other supporters to turn the cry for change into policy and practice. In 1916, Congress passed a federal law establishing an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers, and the Supreme Court agreed that was constitutional the following year.
In 1926, Ford Motor Company instituted a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Founder Henry Ford insisted, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.” He saw the benefit for business: “People who have more leisure must have more clothes…eat a greater variety of food…require more transportation in vehicles.”
It wasn’t until 1938—more than a half century after the Haymarket Riot and the national strikes for eight-hour workdays—when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the workweek to 44 hours, and then amended the law two years later to 40 hours.
These days the 40-hour workweek is so ingrained in our thinking that it is remarkable to realize how long and fierce the struggle was to secure it. But let’s not doubt similar battles are still ongoing.
The Biden administration—led by a president focused on increasing the prosperity of working people—is currently proposing that some 3.6 million salaried workers who earn less than $55,000 a year should receive overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week.
Here’s how acting Labor Secretary Julie Su put it last week: “For over 80 years, a cornerstone of workers’ rights in this country is the right to a 40-hour workweek, the promise that you get to go home after 40 hours or you get higher pay for each extra hour that you spend laboring away from your loved ones,” she said in a statement. “I’ve heard from workers again and again about working long hours, for no extra pay, all while earning low salaries that don’t come anywhere close to compensating them for their sacrifices.”
Her words are a reminder of how vital it is to have compassionate leadership deciding labor policy. And her underlying message sounds a lot like the slogan from 137 years ago, in 1886, when labor activists were building their eight-hour day movement: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will.”
May you enjoy this well-earned Labor Day holiday.
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