If you think about it, almost every major holiday centers on gratitude. With New Years, we express gratitude for new opportunities and a fresh start. With Valentine’s, we express gratitude for our significant other. Mother’s and Father’s Day, gratitude for our parents. Memorial Day, gratitude for those who gave their lives for our country. Independence Day, gratitude for our country itself. Thanksgiving, gratitude for everything. You get the idea.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Labor Day is also about gratitude. Of course, gratitude probably isn’t what most people think of when it comes to Labor Day. But it should be because with Labor Day; we have an opportunity to give thanks for some indispensable rights and privileges – and the men and women who risked everything to win them for us.
As you probably remember from history class, the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great social upheaval in the United States. Workers around the country marched, protested, and went on strike to secure safer working conditions, fairer pay, and a higher quality of life for themselves and their children. Many lost their livelihoods in the struggle; some even lost their lives. But their efforts were not in vain. Many of the rights and privileges we enjoy today – rights we too often take for granted – were thanks to the Labor Movement. There are so many things that Labor Day has given us. Let’s take a look.
8-hour Days & 40-hour Work Weeks
Americans performed backbreaking labor for twelve or more hours a day for much of our nation’s history. From dawn to dark, men and women gave every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears they had just to survive. Thanks to the Labor Movement, 40-hour workweeks became standardized – and eventually codified into law. As a result, we now have more time to see our families, engage in hobbies, read a good book, or even just enjoy a beautiful sunset.
As you know, Labor Day is the first Monday of September. That means we get to enjoy a three-day weekend. But the very concept of a weekend is thanks to the Labor Movement! Massive, nationwide strikes and marches at the turn of the century gained Americans the right to a shorter workweek. Let’s all remember that the next time we sleep in on Saturday or go golfing on Sunday. TGIF? Workers had to fight for those letters to mean anything.
Have you ever had a nasty bout of the flu? Ever needed surgery? If so, I imagine you took time off to recover. I also suspect you didn’t worry about whether you’d still have a job by the time you were better. Without paid sick leave, most Americans wouldn’t have the means to heal from their illnesses, injuries, and accidents. Nowadays, we consider this a fundamental human right – a right we wouldn’t have without the Labor Movement.
Ever visited Yellowstone National Park? Disneyland? Have you ever gone on an iconic fishing trip or just took a few days off to finish a project around the house? Vacations are something none of us could live without. They help us recharge our batteries. They help enrich our lives. They form the core of some of our most cherished experiences and memories. We have Labor to thank for vacations, too.
Safe Working Conditions
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The factory’s owners escaped. Most of the factory’s workers,mainly women, did not. Due to locked doors, blocked fire escapes, and flammable surroundings, 146 laborers never returned home that day.1 The youngest were only 14 years old.1
In the 21st century, none of us would want to work in a fundamentally unsafe place. None of us would want to work where disease and disaster were rampant. In the 19th century, most workers had no choice. Thanks to their sacrifice, we do.
At the turn of the 20th century, more than 1.75 million children labored in mills, mines, factories, and farms. They spent 10-14 hours every day in dangerous conditions for very little money. Most never received an education. As a result, many grew up with callused fingers, poor eyesight, rotting lungs – and unrealized potential. But the workers and protestors of the Labor Movement didn’t just fight for their rights. They fought for their children, too. That’s why it became illegal for most industries to employ children under 14 and why there are so many protections in place to prevent older children from working long hours in dangerous jobs.
These days, most kids spend their days going to school, romping on the playground, riding bikes, or doing any of a thousand other fun activities. In other words, they are allowed to be children. That’s something we should never take for granted – and it’s largely thanks to the Labor Movement.
So there you have it, proof positive that Labor Day is all about gratitude. Just as we give thanks to the Founders for our country, soldiers for our safety, and parents for our lives, so too should we thank the workers and laborers who came before us. The men and women who, thanks to their efforts, made life more worth living.
On behalf of Tina and me, we wish you a happy Labor Day weekend!