To most Americans in 21st-century America, Labor Day is not an important holiday.
It marks the unofficial end of summer. As such, it affords a three-day weekend to pursue summertime passions one last time before the weather cools. For most of us it has little additional meaning.
It may come as a surprise to many contemporary Americans, therefore, to learn that Labor Day became a national holiday during an era characterized by great conflict between organized labor and the business community. The decision to create the holiday was, in part, an act of conciliation.
The late 19th century was a time when a fierce struggle was taking place regarding the structure of the workplace in industrial America. Workers were engaged in an often-violent struggle with corporate employers about how the profits generated in a booming economy would be divided between laborers and owners. This was a time when labor unions were emerging as major forces in both the marketplace and the political life of the nation. Unions seem commonplace to us today, but in the last two decades of the 19th century their role was controversial and occasioned bitter confrontations.
Leaders in the labor movement sought governmental acknowledgment of its legitimacy throughout the 1880s and 1890s. In many states holidays celebrating the contributions workers were making to the nation's economic and social progress were adopted. By 1894, Labor Day was a holiday in 23 states.
The legislation approved by Congress on June 28, 1894, establishing Labor Day as a national holiday was an attempt by President Grover Cleveland and his supporters in Congress to show respect for the labor movement. It came during a year when the president had incurred much hostility in labor circles by using federal troops to halt a railroad workers strike. Many historians view the creation of this national holiday as an attempt at conciliation at a time of much conflict regarding the role of unions.
All of that seems very remote from our world on Labor Day 2012.
That workers should be treated with respect, compensated fairly, provided with appropriate benefits and assured a safe work environment are accepted norms in our society.
As you celebrate the last days of summer on this holiday weekend, take a few moments to say a silent thank you to the men and women whose battles for social and economic justice helped mold the remarkable society in which we are privileged to live.