This is one holiday that Hallmark didn’t create. Labor Day has been celebrated in the U.S. and Canada since 1894. It isn’t surprising that there is debate over who started it. It’s also known as the official end of summer, and if you had my mom, no more wearing white. But the true meaning of the day is to honor those whose work is to make things work.
In 1882, the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York city urged on by the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union was an early trade union that later evolved into local AFL-CIO chapters. The day for celebration selected was the first Monday in September and it was known as the “working man’s holiday.” (I’d like to believe that meant women, too).
There was a time in America when five and six-year-olds worked in mills and factories, the poor and recent immigrants braved unsafe working conditions, poor sanitation, and no breaks during a 12-hour workday. Greed and profit-before-people, ruled. There was no living wage during the Industrial Revolution and the average pay for laborers was about 25 cents an hour, the equivalent of $5.88 per hour today. (You can check today’s minimum wage by state on the U.S. Labor Department site).
It took a labor union movement to protect workers from abusive conditions. Seems like it always takes a movement to wrestle basic rights and decency from the reluctant hands of those in power. The fight for basic rights and decency is a recurring wrestling match and not a one-and-done. A day honoring labor reminds us that family leave, benefits packages, salary negotiations, and the ability to challenge an employer on pay and conditions, didn’t always exist in the land of the free.
On this Labor Day Let’s Lift Up the Unseen
Like Texas, California is an agricultural state. In my former job, I frequently drove down to Monterey from the Bay Area. During those long highway stretches, I could see farm workers picking produce by hand with sacks on their shoulders. Men and women standing up to long hours in the elements, a repetitious stoop from one plant to the next. There is a rhythm to their silent movement.
When I walk into my bougie supermarket, the floors sparkle. Someone or several faceless someones make that happen. Who would buy food from a store where you can see juice droppings from a visiting toddler or the leftover evidence of an ‘oops,’ in the produce section where people drop food and fail to pick it up?
No matter how hot the weather, there’s a person with a leaf blower somewhere in your community making common grounds presentable. They keep your property values up but remain nameless.
The acrobatic skills of construction workers who dress our skylines by building tall buildings in leaps and bounds; we only know them by their hard hats and thick shoes.
They wear name badges we don’t read. Healthcare workers braved the pandemic and held the front lines. They labor up close with people who are contagious, sick, or dying.
Even though we’ve given it the moniker, snail mail, when the internet is down it still delivers. The person at the other end of that daily delivery carries our mail from community to community, house to house. We see their hats, trucks, and bags.
Laborers are the people who get ish done. They bring the concepts of products and services into reality.
Joseph Joubert, French moralist, and philosopher said, “Genius begins great works. Labor alone finishes them.”
It’s a holiday so I’ll leave my soap box in the closet, but suffice it to say, I believe we should assign more value and better working conditions to labor. Ironically, many of the workers we’re recognizing, don’t have the day off.