The Story of Labor Day

Copy of Untitled (3)This weekend is Labor Day Weekend, celebrated across this nation. Most of us have tomorrow off from school and work. Many of us will go down and watch the Labor Day parade tomorrow morning. Local Unions drive their big work trucks through the streets and throw candy. Politicians pass out little American flags and there is a big picnic afterward. 

The battle for worker’s rights in this country has been a long story, fought in picket lines and folk songs lyrics. While great improvements have been made in the quality of worker’s conditions and rights, the struggle for labor rights is not over. The battles for human conditions are still ongoing in many trenches. There are still people working “part-time” and “seasonal” jobs, as corporations drop employee hours to skate under the healthcare mandate limbo bar. There are still many places where basic discrimination protections are not in place, leaving our LGBT siblings at daily risk. Minimum wage in many places, including in the Ozarks, is not a living wage. Still, the days of company stores and seventy hour weeks are primarily over and there are clear laws in place surrounding child labor and safe working conditions. 

This is different from the way it was, before people organized into groups called unions and demanded workers rights. Labor Day as a national holiday was designed to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” to the public. That was the initial goal of a celebration of Labor Day, written into the papers outlining the need. It was a day to exhibit the strength of labor. It was a time to march, fill the streets.

Labor Day was instated as a national holiday as a result of the Pullman Strikes. The Pullman Strikes were train strikes in 1894. Although the activist epicenter was in Detroit, their shockwaves were felt across the nation’s train yards. The strikes became so large and destructive that the President of the United States at the time, President Cleveland, sent the federal government in to manage the situation. 

When President Cleveland sent people in, public sentiment was largely on the side of the government, but that changed as people watched what unfolded. The result of the federal government attempting to shut down or dampen the strikes was violence. Many people were injured and some people died. This was before cell phone videos and Tweets, but waves of concern slowly washed across the country. People were worried about what they heard had happened. People across the nation demanded that the workers be celebrated and protected. Within a week of the strikes ending, Congress and President Cleveland (the same President who had sent the feds into the strike to begin with) had signed Labor Day into a national holiday.

Labor Day was created as a direct response to the hard work of people who banded together to demand fair treatment. This weekend was designed as a way to honor those sacrifices, and remind the workers of their strength. 

This Time For All Ages was presented on September 1, 2019 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield. An audio recording of the reading is available through the congregational Youtube channel. It was adapted from a sermon written by AJ Fox in September of 2013. 

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