NEW YORK — Labor Day for many people is a straightforward last hurrah of the summer. It’s about barbecues, beaches and bargains at stores. It’s the date for shoving white clothing to the back of the closet.
But the day has a much deeper meaning that’s especially notable in New York, the city that first celebrated labor day.
The average work week now is about 47 hours, according to Gallup data. People used to work nearly twice as long each week in the 1800s. For them, 12-hour work days, seven days a week was the norm.
Children as young as 5 worked too. Conditions were dangerous in the workplace. Salaries were low and hours were long. Workers, desperate to improve their lives, began to unionize.
On Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 New Yorkers didn’t bother to show up to work. Instead, they marched from City Hall to Union Square as a tribute to workers organized by the Central Labor Union. There was also a picnic, concert and speeches.
New York may have been first, but in 1887 Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday. New Jersey, New York, Colorado and Massachusetts instituted their own Labor Days later that year. Twenty-three states had enacted a Labor Day by 1894.
The date varied — some celebrated on Sept. 1, some on the first Saturday of September and some on the first Monday of the month.
It took a massive strike for the holiday to be instituted nationwide.
After a massive recession hit the country in 1893 and railroad employees were devastated by huge wage cuts, more than 150,000 workers across more than 25 states went on strike in 1894. Most of the nation’s rail lines were down.
The strikes turned violent and President Grover Cleveland called in troops to break the strikes. More than a dozen people were killed.
People were furious across the country. Cleveland, who was up for re-election, pushed Congress to institute Labor Day as a Federal Holiday. They did in June 1894.
“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen,” was noted in an 1894 House of Representatives committee report.
The protests of the 1800s changed workplace culture around the nation. Those protests keep kids out of the workplace and led to weekends, workplace safety laws, minimum wage and overtime.