The first Labor Day "parade" 139 years ago this weekend had nothing to do with candy, flesh-pressing politicians, a day off with family and neighbors, or even a last hurrah before summer's end and school's start.
Rather, it was all about the dire need for workers' rights. To raise public awareness, 10,000 workers in New York City walked off the job and marched from City Hall to Union Square, as the History Channel and other chroniclers have recorded. At that time, laborers, a good many of them easy-to-exploit immigrants, were toiling 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and just barely making ends meet. Children as young as 5 were working, too, in mills, factories, mines, and elsewhere, but for far less than what the grownups next to them were paid. Working conditions often were abysmal and dangerous. And what now seem like pretty basic things — fresh air, bathrooms, and breaks — were often nonexistent.
Strikes and rallies flanked that parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882, in an uprising over the poor conditions and to press for changes.
Such protests and actions often were met with resistance. Police officers and workers alike were killed in the infamous Haymarket Square riot of 1886 in Chicago, its demands including the eight-hour workday. And a strike in 1894, also in Chicago, in protest of wage cuts and the firings of union representatives, led to a boycott of Pullman railway cars, which crippled railroad traffic around the nation. The federal government responded by sending troops to Chicago, sparking riots. More than 12 workers died.
Labor Day — originally "workingmen's holiday" — was a response by Congress to quiet and quell all the labor unrest. A more substantial response came in 1916 with the Adamson Act, which humanely established the eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers, a reform that quickly spread and that many of us now take for granted.
The progress from the days of virtual worker dungeons in the late 1800s is reflected in the rich labor history of Duluth and the Northland, from the discovery of iron ore on the Range to the struggles 100 years later for paid sick days and time off to care for loved ones.
Workers today, whether as a result of laws or just human decency, are treated far better than their ancestors and are far better off than the exploited masses of the late 19th century.
These are tumultuous times for workers right now, though, as a return of jobs and a rebounding economy on the heels of the shutdowns and economic disasters of the COVID-19 pandemic more recently have been stymied by the delta variant’s rising rates of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.
The U.S. economy teetering with the ever-changing health crisis, companies created far fewer jobs in August than expected, as CNBC reported this week, citing a just-released report from the payroll services firm ADP.
“Private payrolls rose just 374,000 for the month, well below the Dow Jones estimate of 600,000, though above July’s 326,000,” CNBC reported. “Most of the new jobs came from leisure and hospitality, which added 201,000 positions in a somewhat hopeful sign that an industry beset by a labor shortage continues to recover. Education and health services combined to add 59,000 for the month as hospitals in some parts of the country were swamped with virus cases and schools (began) to reopen.”
Difficult jobs reports now can remind us of labor’s dark history — and the risk of such conditions and treatment being repeated. Workers and all Americans can further be reminded by Labor Day of the very real need for workplace protections and workers' rights, and the diligence necessary to avoid losing progress made in the past nearly 140 years.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.