In the United States, we will celebrate Labor Day on Monday, September 4. It is not just a day to pull out the barbecue grill one last time before autumn hits. It is a very important federal holiday commemorating the Labor Movement of the 19th century that sought to end the poor and unfair treatment of American workers. Take some time to learn about the history of this holiday and share it with your children because there is quite a lot to learn and commemorate.
In the late 1800s, during the period known as the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the majority of people worked in factories, mills, and mines under unsafe and unsanitary conditions, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for very little pay. Children as young as 5 years old were working as well for less pay than adults. There was no quality of life in the work place. The only way that workers believed their voices would be heard was through forming unions and taking part in strikes and organized marches.
The first and arguably the most influential march was held on September 5, 1882 in New York City. This was the same day that the union, Nobel Order of the Knights of Labor, was planning on meeting in the city, so it decided to invite other unions as well. About 20,000 workers gave up an entire day’s pay to participate and the march soon turned into a parade. This was the first parade of many to come. Over a decade later, in 1896, President Grover Cleveland decided to make the day a national holiday while many states, such as Oregon, New York, Colorado, and Massachusetts, had already recognized the day for several years.
There were some workers who were not allowed to participate in these marches or parades, such as African Americans. While the Knights of Labor union was race inclusive, African American workers could not be members of the majority of white labor unions. Despite the racism and aversion by the white workers towards them, African American workers were still able to band together and create unions of their own, one of which was the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). The Knights of Labor and the CNLU were some of the most powerful unions at the time.
The Knights of Labor union was almost fully responsible for the first Labor Day celebration and the CNLU was successful in arranging employee benefits and fair wages for its workers. Unfortunately, the two unions would eventually die out before Labor Day was recognized as a national holiday.
It is important for our children to understand the history behind our national holidays, including this one. Labor Day is not about barbecues and marking the end of summer- it is about ending the unfair treatment of workers and actually celebrating the innovation and creativity of American workers and the many contributions they have made.