By BILLIE LYONS
For The Union Democrat
It’s funny that after all these years of adulthood, Labor Day still leaves me with a sense of melancholy.
You see, I am from that era when school officially started the day after. Black Tuesday if you will. Gone would be the long hot days spent catching crawdads at the river. No more balmy nights eating popsicles and pixie sticks hoping to see a shooting star or even just watching the bats flit overhead doing what bats do best. Sleep overs spent watching Chiller Theater all night would be a rare event now.
And playing till the streetlights came on would be replaced with homework and bedtimes. Yes, for me Labor Day was the universe itself pulling the plug on summer and all the happiness and freedom that came with it.
That weekend was always a rush of activity. Last minute school clothes needed to be found. The hunt for the perfect new lunch pail was a must because the dented and beat up Partridge Family one from last year was now holding trinkets and treasures under the bed. Moms would all show up at one point holding the scissors and if you were lucky your bangs wouldn’t be too short or crooked by picture day. Most times you were not, and these images would haunt you for the rest of your life.
But I cannot say I ever really paid attention to what Labor Day was all about. And I wonder how many of our youth today really know? So here we go. A brief summary of the holiday itself and why it even IS a holiday.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s put working America into a frenzy of hard and harsh labor. Long hours of backbreaking work for little pay, child labor, extremely poor safety and work conditions, and virtually no safety net or help if you were injured or God forbid, killed.
You were quickly replaced with yet another poor soul trying to put food on their table and coal in their stoves. Manufacturing had replaced the farms as the main source of income for many, and with that shady practices and lack of regulations was rampant. Things needed to change. Enter the first labor unions.
Labor unions fought to bring safety and adequate pay to the working class. They were loud and voiced they’re complaints publicly. They held rallies and strikes to hit the big business owners where it hurt most. Their pockets. As these protests grew more frequent and public, they also turned more violent and vigilantes would leave a bloody legacy.
On September 5, 1882 the idea of a different world in the workplace would be tossed out into the public in a big way. On that day 10,000 workers would take an unpaid day off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, and the Labor Day Parade was born.
Slowly but surely the notion of giving employees a “workingmen’s holiday” took hold, and it would take place on the first Monday of September. Still not legalized at this point, but a huge step in the right direction.
It would be twelve years later in 1894 after employees of the Pullman Palace Car Co. in Chicago would strike and bring the bustling railroad industry nationwide to its knees in protest of wage cuts and the firing of their union representatives. The federal government didn’t take that lying down and troops were sent in to bring it all to an end. When it was over, more than a dozen workers lay dead.
Something needed to be done and done quickly to quiet the aftershocks that rippled across the nation, and on June 28, 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law declaring it a legal holiday, and in the 1968 “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” Labor Day was given its permanent position of first Monday in September place of honor. Through time Labor Day has become a weekend of three-day clearance sales, last minute road trips, and free HBO binges. But it is truly so much more. It stands for a long and bloody fight for the rights of the people who worked so hard and for so little but did so much to turn America into the industrial giant it is today.
Billie Lyons is curator for the Tuolumne County Historical Society.