Monday, September 1, 2014

A Labor Day History Lesson From Tazi

Dear Readers:

Happy Labor Day! Are you enjoying your day off? Or are you receiving overtime wages for working today? Either way, I suggest that you thank a union member – it was their fight that brought the benefit of paid holidays, overtime wages, and this day of appreciation to the people.

The history of Labor Day is an interesting one, and today I will be sharing it with you so when you kick back with a hot dog and your favorite beverage at the barbeque, you can impress people with your immense knowledge of this celebratory day!

The actual origin of Labor Day is in historical dispute, but evidence leads to the belief that in 1882 a union machinist named Matthew McGuire suggested the idea of a holiday honoring American workers. What is historically factual is that the Central Labor Union of New York is responsible for the sponsoring and planning of the first Labor Day in America. Unlike today, it was not a day of festivities but a day of demonstrations – complete with a picnic lunch, as was customary with any large gathering of the time.

Why the need to demonstrate? As history shows, the 19th century was not a time of fair labor laws and workers rights. Even though unions existed, they were far from the powerful and respected organizations they are today. From the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s until 1913, when the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed to institute an income tax, Industrial “Robber” Barons held the purse-strings of the American economy and workers were bound to the rules they set, working in deplorable conditions for twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

Andrew Carnegie and the Homestead Strike of 1892

Never forget the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Children were not excused from labor back in those days; in fact, child labor was preferred as children could be paid less money than their adult counterparts and were more able to fit into small spaces to fix jammed machinery. Although Americans like to think of themselves as the collective protectorate of our nation’s young, the truth of the matter is that it was parents who sent their children to work instead of school, with both the expectation and blessing of the American public.

In spite of efforts in the early 20th century to improve child welfare by ending child employment it was not until the Great Depression when child advocates and union members combined forces to push for the passing of labor laws to enforce mandatory education of children up to the age of 16. It was reasoned that if a child is in school full time they will be unable to hold full-time employment, thus creating much needed job openings for adults and forcing employers to pay increased wages.

The argument against education was an argument against unions!

In 1883, the second Labor Day was celebrated; keeping with the original date chosen for the celebration it was held of September 5th – a Wednesday. It was not until 1884 that Labor Day took on its traditional date of the first Monday in September. The Central Labor Union of New York, still the only celebrant of Labor Day, encouraged other unions to hold similar celebrations and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in several industrial cities throughout America. Since Labor Day was not an officially recognized holiday participants were docked a day’s wages for being absent from work – an attempt by employers to discourage participation in what was seen as undesirable union activity.

Once introduced, the idea of Labor Day spread quickly and by 1886 a bill had been introduced in the New York state legislature to make Labor Day an official state holiday. The bill did not pass (New York City being the home of Tammany Hall) but early the following year the state of Oregon was the first to declare Labor Day an official state holiday. Even back then, the West was known for its progressiveness. Over the next several years, 23 more states passed legislation making Labor Day an official holiday and in 1894 Labor Day became an official Federal holiday with the passage of law by the 53rd Congress.

Originally, the celebration of Labor Day was designed to focus on parades and festivals as a celebration of and reward to hard-working Americans, but like any large gathering of the citizenry it soon attracted politicians and took on a more serious bent. As large industrial centers grew into the cities we now know, it became difficult for municipalities to continue to host such large-scale celebrations as their planning and execution disrupted the commerce that continued to take place. At this point Labor Day celebrations moved to the smaller cities, and eventually brought forth the backyard barbeques and park-based picnic celebrations we now know.

Today we must ask; has the significance of Labor Day been lost as union membership dwindles? This Labor Day, we face protests as those who call themselves “the 99%” fight to call attention to the plight of the shrinking middle-class. Have the “robber barons” of the prior century reappeared in the form today’s CEO’s? Or has the dynamic of the American workforce changed; with even CEO’s being forced to work like slaves, chattel to the stockholders, for exorbitant compensation but no leisure time to enjoy it? Have we as Americans become so beholden to our luxuries that to go without them is considered an inconceivable poverty? Have our first world problems left us blind to true suffering?

Ummm, isn't Twitter corporate?

Has the role of the union changed from one that looked out for the worker to one that looks out for the union bosses and their cronies? So often I hear from everyday workers who complain that their union dues do nothing but take a chunk of much needed money from their paycheck; they feel as though their unions are not representing them but lining the pockets of their leadership. Is this true? Or it is simply the complaints of one who thinks as a child; who would argue that Mommy and Daddy are mean because their allowance is not inflated beyond what their chores have earned them?

I am just a little kitty, and do not pretend to know the answers to such great big questions; but I think a national debate is in order. I offer up my comments section as the forum! In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this history lesson. I will now be resting from my labors of dictating this column to my Mommie and celebrating the day by taking an extra long nap! How will you be celebrating?


P.S. Remember that people in the service industries - from emergency to entertainment - will be working today so you can enjoy your day off. Please do not make lame jokes at their expense; if you do, I will have to paw slap you!

Sources: Historical information courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor,, and; videos via YouTube.

Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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