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The Homefront: US laborers labored hard to enact Labor Day

By D. Louise Brown - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Sep 5, 2023

D. Louise Brown

One of my earliest childhood recollections is of my dad and his dad clearing some dead trees from Grandpa’s land. The trees were huge, but then so was those two men’s determination. They didn’t have a chainsaw — just axes. (This was a long time ago). So they chopped for a long time at the huge tree trunks, hollered for us curious kids to get out of the way, and we all watched the tall, grey-white skeletal remains of those trees waver, sigh and slowly topple from vertical to horizontal. The booming thud of their bodies hitting the ground still wells up in my memory, as does the sight of those men along with brothers and uncles carving those trees into manageable, useful lengths of firewood.

Grandpa’s primary profession was farming, with carpentry and wallpaper hanging on the side. Dad’s primary profession started out farming, then with some education turned to electronics and repair work. But the farming never left him, and nothing suited him better than hard work like felling those trees, cultivating a huge garden or fixing a sagging fence line.

The family motto centered on the idea that a good day’s work meant you were worth your keep, idle hands really were the devil’s tools, and true satisfaction is most easily found in a job well done. In those days, the Labor Day holiday was kind of a shrug; who doesn’t appreciate hard labor, right?

But in today’s world, Labor Day seems to have become a fall version of Memorial Day when kids get to stay home from school, stores offer great sales on something or another and the weather is still good enough for a picnic. Actual appreciation for the holiday’s origins seems to be missing. That might be because we’ve sort of forgotten how Labor Day began.

I know I did. And thus began an internet search, which first noted that this year Labor Day is 129 years old. Sites I visited agreed that Labor Day honors not just what this nation’s workers accomplish, but also what the holiday’s originators had to go through to convince government leaders of the time that the contributions of American workers were worth recognition and honor.

Labor Day has rugged roots. In the late 1800s, the U.S.’s Industrial Revolution brought lots of work and little pay to the average American laborer who worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to barely squeak by. Children as young as 5 years old worked in mills, factories and mines, earning a fraction of adults’ pay and often shouldering small-space, highly dangerous jobs.

It all added up to unsafe, unhealthy working conditions, which led to discontent, which led to violence in the form of riots and protest marches, some of which turned deadly. Labor unions formed and urged workers to protest unsafe conditions and negotiate against poor pay. Naturally, that did not sit well with officials who sometimes brought in police power to turn the tide.

In 1882, a crowd of 10,000 workers marched from New York’s City Hall to Union Square. Some consider this the first Labor Day parade. The march was impressive but did little to convince federal officials that change was needed. The situation continued to escalate, and in 1886, a Chicago riot turned violent. Several workers and policemen were killed.

As other forms of protests continued, the idea of a “working men’s holiday” began to form. Several states passed legislation recognizing it. But Congress held out 12 more years until employees of the Pullman Palace Car Co. went on strike, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. That got the attention of the feds, who unwisely responded with troops. The protestors decided the best way to respond to that response was a wave of riots. Unfortunately, more than a dozen workers lost their lives.

The trajectory of those collective events finally convinced Congress that this country’s legitimate strength doesn’t actually lie in Washington. They passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894.

It’s something of an irony that the nation’s laborers had to labor so hard for a federal holiday to recognize their labors. But considering the hard-working people most of us grew up amongst, and the hard-working people we see around us today, the chance to work to earn our place, satisfy our need to progress and contribute to the world around us is reason enough to annually honor the working people’s holiday.

D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.


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