If you have a job and you’re among the fortunate to be off this Labor Day, you might be working anyway.
That’s according to a study, “Working Conditions in the United States,” released a few weeks ago by the Rand Corp. The report describes increasing stress in the workplace, finding that “American workers often work very long hours” and many, about half, “work in their free time to meet demands.” It also notes that “for many Americans, work can be taxing across a range of core dimensions, including at the physical, social, mental, and time levels.”
The bump in time devoted to the job will come as no surprise to those who are “on call” 24/7 or those pressured to monitor things at the office through their smartphones and home computers. What is peculiar, though, is how the survey’s findings evoke the origins of Labor Day.
There’s no denying Monday’s holiday is far removed from its primary purpose as a celebration of the American worker. That’s understandable, though. Labor Day comes at perhaps the most transitional time of year. It’s punctuated by a host of beginnings and endings. Attention turns to the new school year. Football games begin to count, and baseball teams begin their push for the playoffs. Election season officially gets underway.
When one considers work, the holiday’s designation as the “unofficial end to summer” serves as a reminder that we’re ruled by time. Warm temperatures wind down and so do vacations. The things that have been put off “until after Labor Day” can no longer be avoided. Time to get back to work.
Abuse of the demand to “get to work” is what led to the creation of Labor Day in 1882. In the late 19th century, mill, mine, and factory workers typically toiled from dawn to dusk in hazardous conditions. It was common to work 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week. Fledgling labor unions recognized the importance of leisure and called for an end to insufferable work hours. The passage and enforcement of eight-hour workday legislation became a priority, and the enthusiastic support for shorter hours among workers served as the inspiration for a day dedicated to labor.
And if you like your weekends, thank Labor Day. The pressures of the Industrial Revolution provided for just one day off - Sunday. In 1884, when union officials decided it would be best to “observe the first Monday in September of each year as Labor Day,” employees experienced something unique. They had two days in a row off. The “weekend” was born (for those who could afford to take the holiday off without pay). True, it wouldn’t be until the Great Depression that most industries, prodded by organized labor and the federal government, moved to a 40-hour workweek and a five-day work schedule. But Labor Day was the first to demonstrate the obvious: Workers appreciated a two-day break.
The rallies and demonstrations for the eight-hour day served as a model for the way the holiday should be celebrated. The first Labor Day, on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City was highlighted by a massive parade. Thousands of workers in occupations as varied as carpenters, dress- and shirt-makers, bricklayers, jewelers, and cigar-makers participated. Marchers proudly wore their work clothes or emblems or carried banners to signify their occupations. In these times of declining union membership, such demonstrations of working-class pride are rare. But in at least one way, today’s Labor Day celebrations mirror the past.
As many people gather this weekend for a final outdoor barbecue or travel to share time with family and friends, they are actually in the spirit of what the holiday’s founders intended. The first Labor Day did not end with the parade. Marchers and spectators made their way to Elm Park, the city’s largest beer garden, to enjoy lager, picnic lunches, games, dancing, singing and fireworks. It not only drew families together but created a temporary bond among ethnic groups.
“Fellow-workers and their families sat together, joked together and caroused together. American and English, Irish and German, they all hobnobbed and seemed on a friendly footing, as though the common cause had established a closer sense of brotherhood,” according to a report in the New York Herald. Obviously, the workers, used to working a six-day week, appreciated the free time to share with others.
Of course, the varied festivities now connected to Labor Day should not undercut its original intent of recalling the contributions to society of American workers, and the sacrifices made by some to improve conditions for all. Consider the major strikes that paved the way for shorter hours and better pay and working conditions. Think about the participants who stood up and took part in, for example, the Great Anthracite Strike of 1902, the Textile Workers Strike of 1934 and the UPS Workers Strike of 1997.
It is also an appropriate time to remember the thousands who have died in workplace accidents, including major tragedies like the Avondale Mine Disaster of 1869, the Monongah Mine Explosion of 1907 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. Events in labor history such as these offer important lessons.
As the digital age lengthens the workday and shrinks the weekend, many American workers, like their 19th-century counterparts, are looking for ways to escape. Here’s an idea to consider - at least on a day “off.” In the cult classic film “Office Space, programmer Peter Gibbons, who is disgusted with his dealings with corporate bureaucracy and with working on Saturdays, is asked by a friend what he would do if he had a million dollars. “Nothing,” he responds. “I would relax. I would sit on my ass all day. I would do nothing.”
That sounds like the perfect way to celebrate Labor Day.
Mark A. Noon is an assistant professor of English at Bloomsburg University.