Labour Day (1st Monday of September)
While many people know that the 1st of May the International Workers’ Day is celebrated, not so many know its American cousin, Labor Day. Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday of September, creating a long weekend that is often referred to as Labor Day Weekend and that unofficially marks the end of summer. However, Labor Day commemorates more than a farewell to the summer months or some shopping deals, as its origins are strictly political and still relevant for today. The holiday was created, according to the U.S. Department of Labour, out of appreciation and respect for the work that men and women have done for the country. And while that may be true, the reality is that two big events were the ones that fuelled the creation of Labor Day, but in order to understand this, we need a bit of history first.
A bit of history
On the first of January of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as an executive order from the president of the United States. This proclamation, which would later be converted into the current 13th Amendment, had the aim of reducing the economic liberties of slaveholders and give basic freedoms to enslaved workers, effectively changing their status to that of free persons. Yes, you read that well, at the time, slaveowners thought that owning people was an economic liberty, and therefore any regulation that would increase the well-being of the enslaved persons was an attack on their economic liberties.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, many former enslaved people moved to Northern states where they started working as free workers. However, the conditions were often not ideal, as workers were constantly underpaid and overworked. At the end of the 19th century, unions started gaining more strength as workers began to organize and protest, asking for improvements in several labour issues such as shorter working hours. Many small unions united forming the Central Labour Union, which facilitated communication and organizing between workers in different industries. While parades and small demonstrations started becoming more common, the first of the two events that can be considered the genesis of Labor Day was the day of the 5th of September of 1882. That day, around ten thousand workers marched the streets of New York City and then joined together in a picnic. To commemorate the event, the Central Labor Union proposed that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen of New York City. After that, several states adopted the official holiday, but it was not recognized everywhere in the country.
A few years later, in 1893, a strike began in a town near Chicago where people who worked for George Pullman -the creator of the railroad sleeping car- lived. Pullman decided, after an economic depression, to cut the wages of its employees a 25% while leaving the price of their rents intact. This caused the thousands of affected workers to strike in what is now considered to be the first true nationwide strike. However, the strike rapidly turned into rioting and arson because the then-president, Grover Cleveland, send federal troops to stop the strike and preventing it from spreading to other states. After a week of turbulences, several people died. The president then offered to make Labor Day an official holiday as a form of reparation, and in 1894 it was made a legal holiday recognised across the country.
While Labor Day may remind us that we have come a long way, it is also a way of not forgetting that labour legislation -and ensuring that the legislation is followed- is key in order to protect the hard-won rights of workers. Currently, modern slavery and forced labour are still a reality, despite the effort of nations and civil organisations such as Slavefreetrade to fight against it. According to the International Labour Organization, as of 2016 there were 24.9 million people in forced labour, and 40.3 million people in modern slavery. Of those, 1 in every 4 victims are children. Modern labour also disproportionately affects women girls. Although it is early to known what the exact effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on forced labour would be, there are hints that the pandemic may worsen the situation of people who are already vulnerable. May celebrations like Labor Day remind us of the necessity to keep fighting for fairer working conditions for every person in the world.