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Michele E. Buttelman: Appreciate those who fought for your Labor Day

Local Commentary

Posted: September 5, 2009 5:02 p.m.
Updated: September 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

In our cushy work places guarded by OSHA safety standards with paid sick days, holidays and vacations and protected by overtime pay laws, it is hard to imagine that life for the average worker used to be much harsher.

Labor Day will be celebrated this year on Monday, Sept. 7.

The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. On that first Labor Day nearly 20,000 working people marched to demand an eight-hour work day and other reforms.

In a parade up Broadway, workers carried banners that read, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation."

The parade reportedly attracted nearly a quarter of a million New Yorkers who lined the streets to watch.

However, the holiday didn't receive federal recognition until President Grover Cleveland urged Congress to pass legislation (June 28, 1894) to designate the first Monday in September a legal holiday.

Cleveland promoted the concept of federal recognition of the holiday - which had already been recognized by 23 of the then 44 states - as a political effort to heal the wounds of the Pullman Strike.

The holiday, which today is merely an excuse to celebrate a three-day weekend and to throw a few steaks on the barbecue, was a carrot that Cleveland promoted as a political reconciliation effort with labor.

The Pullman Strike was an 1894 nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads that began as a wildcat strike in response to reductions in wages, bringing rail traffic west of Chicago to a halt.

At its peak, it involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Cleveland ordered federal troops and U.S. Marshals to Chicago to end the strike.

Violence ensued with the deaths of 13 strikers and 57 wounded.

Cleveland's bid for renomination at the 1896 Democratic National Convention failed because of his response to the strike.

Yes, Virginia, people died to gain workers the rights so many of us treat so cavalierly today.

The United States has a very bloody labor history. Among the first labor strike fatalities were two New York tailors, killed in 1850 by police dispersing a crowd of strikers.

It is estimated that more than 700 people have died in strike-related violence in the United States.

Among the more notorious incidents was the 1913 Ludlow Massacre, when National Guardsmen attacked a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, killing 20 - 11 of them children - and the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, when 10 supporters of a steel strike were killed by Chicago police.

Traditionally, Labor Day is celebrated by most Americans as the symbolic end of the summer.

Yet it is so much more than merely a day to goof off, relax and have fun.

Child labor, including indentured servitude, was for years a fact of American life.

Factory owners often preferred children because they were cheaper to employ, more manageable and unlikely to strike.

It wasn't until 1938 that federal regulation of child labor was achieved in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children were regulated by the act.

However, despite these advances, there is much left to be accomplished for American labor.

A report by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research offers this surprising fact: "The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation."

Note - the ONLY "advanced economy."

Britain assures its workforce of 20 days of guaranteed, compensated leave, France 30 days and Germany 24 days.
Americans now work harder than they did just 40 years ago.

According to Cornell University economist Robert Frank, the average American man works 100 more hours a year then he did in the 1970s.

The average woman has it worse; she works 200 more hours. The typical American sleeps one to two hours less a night than his or her parents did.

To all the hard working American labor force, celebrate this Labor Day by sleeping in. You deserve it - and remember, your eight-hour days, vacations and overtime were paid for with the blood of the workers who fought for those rights.

Michele E. Buttelman is the features and entertainment editor of The Signal. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal She can be reached by e-mail at


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