Labor Day honors bygone workers' contributions

At first glance, Memorial Day and Labor Day have similar purposes. One marks the unofficial beginning of summer, the other its unofficial end.

We traditionally use this space the week before Memorial Day to remind readers of the holiday’s true purpose — to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice — by listing the names of Hinsdaleans who lost their lives in wars, from the first World War to the war in Afghanistan.

Today, as Labor Day approaches, we would like to share some facts and history about the often overlooked meaning behind the three-day weekend.

Labor Day originated in the late 19th century to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Traditionally observed on the first Monday in September, it became a federal holiday in 1894.

While working from home has blurred some boundaries between personal and paid time, our experience of work in modern times has little resemblance to typical working conditions at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s.

At that time, the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, just to earn a basic living. Some states passed restrictions regarding child labor, but others had kids as young as 5 or 6 toiling in mills, factories and mines across the country at greatly reduced wages.

Working conditions were not always safe, and employees often were denied the opportunity to use the restroom, take a break or even breathe fresh air.

As more and more workers moved from the farm to the factory, however, labor unions grew more prominent. They organized strikes and protests regarding poor conditions, hours and pay.

Some of those strikes made headlines. On Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. History.

People liked the idea of a holiday for the laborer, and several states passed legislation recognizing it. But it took the event surrounding the Pullman Palace Car Co. strike in 1894 — which involved 125,000 workers on 29 railroads and crippled rail travel across the country — to prompt Congress to legalize the holiday. The strike was broken up by U.S. Marshals and Army troops, and the conflict left 13 workers killed and 57 wounded. President Grover Cleveland set reconciliation with the labor movement a top political priority, and Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894.

The parades, picnics and parties with which many Americans celebrate Labor Day are similar to those outlined by the first proposal for the holiday, which suggested observations include a street parade to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

So celebrate! Gather with family, friends and neighbors for an outdoor picnic or barbecue while the weather is still cooperating. But take a moment this weekend to remember workers of the 19th century who rarely had the opportunity to enjoy a day off.