What is Labor Day?
Labor Day is always on the first Monday in September, meaning in 2018 it falls on Sept. 3. Families all over the United States will hit the road to squeeze out the last few days of summer before kids have to go back to school and the weather starts to get cooler. What's the true meaning of Labor Day though?
Origins of Labor Day
The Progressive Era was a time of rapid change as the United States dived headfirst into exposing corruption and promoting safe labor practices. Lasting roughly from the 1890s to the 1920s, the period was marked with terrible working conditions throughout the country. There was no minimum wage, most people worked 12-14 hours every day except Sunday and children and adults alike earned just pennies a day. Multiple families often lived in the same tiny tenement apartments, and subsistence on beans, molasses and bread was common.
Moreover, conditions were outright dangerous in many factories. One of the grimmest examples occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, where 146 women and men who made blouses were killed in a massive fire. Because the factory doors were locked to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing fabric, many of them were trapped in the burning building. Some jumped out the windows of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, with many fatalities from that alone.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire remains one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, but it was far from the only incident where workers were killed due to unsafe conditions. The 1878 Washburn A Mill disaster in Minneapolis, Minn. began when a spark ignited airborne flour dust in the eponymous mill, killing 18 workers almost instantly. The Grover Shoe Factory disaster killed 58 people when a boiler exploded without warning and leveled the building. Countless others can be named.
Along with all of these disasters, the period was also marked with widespread labor strikes as workers became fed up with the unsafe conditions. Unions formed rapidly and advocated for better working conditions, improved hours and better pay.
These strikes and protests were often peaceful, but violence and rioting weren't unheard of. The Haymarket Riot in Chicago started out as a peaceful rally in May 1886, but tensions between protesters and police escalated until a homemade bomb was detonated in the path of the officers. A policeman was killed in the immediate blast, and mayhem broke out with shots fired and ten additional deaths following. All told, hundreds of people were injured in the ensuing riot and hundreds more were arrested. There are scores of other stories like this from throughout the era as people started to demand better pay and safer working conditions.
Why Labor Day is Important
The first Monday in September was adopted as Labor Day at the federal level in 1894. Trade unionists had been using that weekend to celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of their movement for years before it became a national holiday, but it took on wider significance after its adoption.
The public holiday stands as a testament to the efforts of the American labor movement to improve occupational lives and health and to reform the industry so ordinary people could afford to live comfortably. America would not be where it is today without those efforts, or the lives that were claimed in the process.
It took decades after some of the biggest labor movements for certain rights we enjoy today to be adopted nationally. Minimum wage wasn't established until the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, and the 40-hour work week wasn't included in the same act until 1940.
Organized labor still has a presence in the United States today. While American workers don't face the disastrous conditions they faced during the Progressive Era on such a massive scale today, unions still exist to protect workers' rights and safety.
Today in the United States, Labor Day parades are held all over the country. Active labor union members tend to represent their locals in these parades, along with military units and floats from nearby organizations.
While the meaning may have been lost to time for people who aren't in unions, Labor Day wouldn't be nearly as significant if there hadn't been fatalities, accidents and active efforts to establish rights for workers. The right to protest and the casualties our grandparents and great-grandparents faced should not be taken for granted, even decades or centuries later.
Labor union mugs and stoneware
Since Sunset Hill Stoneware products are made by hand in America, our mugs and steins are popular with unions. This stoneware supports American workers not only because Wisconsinite craftsmen make them by hand, but because they're a great way to show your employees your appreciation.
One of our recent orders was for the Northwest Jersey Central Labor Council, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). According to the New Jersey State AFL-CIO website, it and its affiliates advocate for employee rights in the state.
Moreover, the mugs we make for our corporate clients are often received positively with union employees. One manager at Essity, a business in our hometown of Neenah, reported that his union member employees appreciated that their corporate logo mugs were not only made in America, but made in Wisconsin so they could support a local business and a handcrafted product.
Labor Day isn't just a day to sleep in and take advantage of sales on big-ticket shopping—although those are two supplementary benefits. It's a day to reflect. Thousands of workers died before the labor laws we have today were enacted. Remember these lives today during your local Labor Day parade, or at any point during your day, and think about how things have changed or could possibly change in the future.