Ah, Labor Day! Born in the United States out of the Industrial Revolution. The unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. Three days to spend with friends and family, typically enjoying some good old-fashioned BBQ. But what are we recognizing? For many, the significance of Labor Day has been lost in time.
At the end of the 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to barely make ends meet. Children, as young as 5 or 6, worked in mills, factories, and mines, to help their families survive, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’.
With insufficient access to fresh air, unsanitary facilities, and insufficient breaks, people of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions. Violent strikes began erupting in response to these working conditions. Attempts to organize were met with hostility and, occasionally, violence by bosses and governments.
Peter McGuire, an Irish-American cabinetmaker, is credited as being the pioneer who first proposed a day dedicated to all who labored. As a member and leader of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, McGuire is best remembered as a “red-headed, fiery and eloquent leader.” McGuire first introduced his idea at a meeting of the Central Labor Union on May 18, 1882, “Let us have a festive day during which a parade through the streets of the city would permit public tribute to American Industry.”
The following September, New York workers staged a parade up Broadway to Union Square. Few, if any, workers got the day off. Most were warned not to participate with the threat of losing their jobs, should they choose to take part. Despite the dire warnings, more than 10,000 workers showed up for the march. McGuire’s holiday was born and the movement advanced slowly across the country, as did the recognition of the rights of workers.
Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners were actually in favor of giving workers more time off. That’s because workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out. Twelve years after the march, on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland—long considered an opponent of organized labor—signed a Labor Day holiday bill, under pressure from voters.
As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.
Company owners began to accept that workers’ demand for better treatment was legitimate in the 20th century. In 1914, Henry Ford more than doubled wages to $5. When his profits doubled over two years, rivals realized he might be onto something. In 1926 he cut workers’ hours from nine to eight. New Deal legislation would lock in 40-hour weeks for many workers, with overtime pay mandated for longer shifts. By the 1940s, according to Costa, the average workweek had fallen to five 8-hour days.
Throughout history, Labor Unions have played a very important role in the lives of U.S. workers. Traditionally, the Unions have moved steadily forward to protect the rights of workers from unfair labor practices. Now,  years later, as we gather to celebrate “The Common Worker,” let us be grateful for the economically strong country we live in and the rights we all enjoy—thanks, in part, to an Irish-American cabinetmaker.