by Judith Bambace 

I love the dog days of summer, even if we don’t actually have hot, sultry weather here in Coronado. With my favorite season whizzing by, I began to think about the approaching September holiday – Labor Day — and its significance. For most Americans, Labor Day provides the opportunity for that last picnic or day at the beach, and it is the starting bell for the steeplechase of autumn. But in today’s political climate, we need to reflect on the origin and true meaning of this holiday, which is more relevant than ever.

Labor Day celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well- being of America. It originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters, when in the late 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. People of all ages, mostly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions. Labor unions grew more prominent and vocal, and they began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. The first Labor Day parade in U.S. history occurred on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. Twelve years later, railroad workers went on strike in Chicago to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives, leading to riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. In the wake of this massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday.

History is, indeed, a great teacher. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today – the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare – and that helped build the largest middle class in history. It is disheartening that today, the middle class – the backbone of our economy – must fight harder and harder just to stay afloat.

Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor between 1886 and 1924, said it best: “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better selves.” Now that’s a holiday worth celebrating.

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