Tomorrow is Labor Day, a day to relax, enjoy and get ready for children of all ages to return to school. Susan Miller a writer for USA Today reviewed why we celebrate Labor Day. We are waving so long to the summer of 2018.
You sizzled us, you soaked us, and you satiated us. And like every other summer season, your sprint to Monday – Labor Day – seemed a blur.
For many, Labor Day is all about capturing that last blast at the beach, backyard barbecues, school retail bonanzas and the grudging realization that sun-soaked play days are no more.
But the day has a deeper meaning and marks a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history — and it had a pretty violent start.
In the late 1800s, the state of labor was grim as U.S. workers toiled under bleak conditions: 12 or more hour workdays; hazardous work environments; meager pay. Children, some as young as 5, were often fixtures at plants and factories.
The dismal livelihoods fueled the formation of the country’s first labor unions, which began to organize strikes and protests and pushed employers for better hours and pay. Many of the rallies turned violent.
On Sept. 5, 1882 — a Tuesday — 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in a parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City as a tribute to American workers. Organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, It was the country’s first unofficial Labor Day parade. Three years later, some city ordinances marked the first government recognition, and legislation soon followed in a number of states.
Then came May 11, 1894, and a strike that shook an Illinois town founded by George Pullman, an engineer, and industrialist who created the railroad sleeping car. The community, located on the Southside of Chicago, was designed as a “company town” in which most of the factory workers who built Pullman cars lived.
When wage cuts hit, 4,000 workers staged a strike that pitted the American Railway Union vs. the Pullman Company and the federal government. The strike and boycott against trains triggered a nationwide transportation nightmare for freight and passenger traffic.
At its peak, the strike involved about 250,000 workers in more than 25 states. Riots broke out in many cities; President Grover Cleveland called in Army troops to break the strikers; more than a dozen people were killed in the unrest.
After the turbulence, Congress, at the urging of Cleveland in an overture to the labor movement, passed an act on June 28, 1894, making the first Monday in September “Labor Day.” It was now a legal holiday.
In the coming decades, the day took root in American culture as the “unofficial end of summer” and is marked by parades, picnics and family/friend time. Post offices, banks, courts, and federal and state offices are shuttered.
My questions are:
Why was Labor Day invented and Have we Lost the Real Spirit of the Holiday?
Labor Day came about because workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.
More history, as you remember in the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average. Sixty years later, in 1890, hours of work had dropped, although the average manufacturing worker still toiled in a factory 60 hours a week.
These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour workday. They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.
These early organizers clearly won since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.
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.
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 workweek was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.
Some Common misconceptions
The common misconception is that since Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey all declared a special legal holiday in September to celebrate workers.
Within 12 years, half the states in the country recognized Labor Day as a holiday. It became a national holiday in June 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill into law. While most people interpreted this as recognizing the day as a national vacation, Congress’ proclamation covers only federal employees. It is up to each state to declare its own legal holidays.
Moreover, proclaiming any day an official holiday means little, as an official holiday does not require private employers and even some government agencies to give their workers the day off. Many stores are open on Labor Day. Essential government services in protection and transportation continue to function, and even less essential programs like national parks are open. Because not everyone is given time off on Labor Day, union workers as recently as the 1930s were being urged to stage one-day strikes if their employer refused to give them the day off.
In the president’s annual Labor Day declaration in 2015, Obama encouraged Americans “to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.”
The proclamation, however, does not officially declare that anyone gets time off.
Controversy: Militants and founders
Today most people in the U.S. think of Labor Day as a noncontroversial holiday. There is no family drama like at Thanksgiving, no religious issues like at Christmas. However, 100 years ago there was controversy.
The first controversy that people fought over was how militant workers should act on a day designed to honor workers. Communist, Marxist and socialist members of the trade union movement supported May 1 as an international day of demonstrations, street protests and even violence, which continues even today.
More moderate trade union members, however, advocated for a September Labor Day of parades and picnics. In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day. There is also the dispute over who suggested the idea. The earliest history from the mid-1930s credits Peter J. McGuire, who founded the New York City Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, in 1881 with suggesting a date that would fall “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving” that “would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”
Later scholarship from the early 1970s makes an excellent case that Matthew Maguire, a representative from the Machinists Union, actually was the founder of Labor Day. However, because Matthew Maguire was seen as too radical, the more moderate Peter McGuire was given the credit.
Have we lost the spirit of Labor Day?
Today Labor Day is no longer about trade unionists marching down the street with banners and their tools of the trade. Instead, it is a confused holiday with no associated rituals.
The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off. Although the battle over these issues would seem to have been won long ago, this issue is starting to come back with a vengeance, not for manufacturing workers but for highly skilled white-collar workers, many of who are constantly connected to work.
How About Considering the Health Care of our Workers?
But maybe we should consider the health care of our workers on this day. According to Gallup, as I already mentioned, the average adult works more than 40 hours per week. Long workweeks without adequate rest can damage Americans’ health. For example, the European Heart Journal published a study in 2010 showing that people who reported working more than 10 hours a day had the highest risk of coronary heart disease. Long work hours also may lead to stress, which can cause health issues like obesity, depression and high blood pressure, among others.
Along with harming individual’s personal health, these chronic health conditions can lead to high costs for the U.S. health care system. According to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Americans spend almost twice as much on health care than people in other advanced countries, yet we still have more injuries and illnesses.
And whether it is a complication of a chronic condition or a seasonal cold, Americans continue to show up sick to work. This is known as “presenteeism,” a term used to describe employees with health conditions who are at work but unable to perform at full capacity. Health-related presenteeism has a larger impact on lost productivity than absenteeism, according to peer-reviewed research sponsored by the National Pharmaceutical Council (NPC) and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2009.
“The study found that when considering medical and drug costs alone, the top five conditions driving costs are cancer (other than skin cancer), back/neck pain, coronary heart disease, chronic pain, and high cholesterol,” as NPC explained when the research was published. “But when health-related productivity costs are measured along with medical and pharmacy costs, the top five chronic health conditions driving these overall health costs shift significantly, to depression, obesity, arthritis, back/neck pain, and anxiety.” As a result, when employers focus on medical and pharmacy costs alone, they may miss an opportunity to address these potentially much more impactful conditions.
Also, remember those who don’t get to take a vacation day on Labor Day one group is the healthcare worker.
Jim Mangia, President, and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center notes that as a child of the labor movement in New York City, Labor Day holds special meaning for me. I grew up walking picket lines to help serve food to strikers and was able to attend college and graduate school because of a union college fund. From an early age, I understood that the fight for decent pay, benefits, and working conditions was a noble one— but not one without consequences. For every memory I have of victories for the labor movement, I’ll never forget seeing police on horseback beating labor activists that gathered to protest jobs from being moved to “right-to-work” states. I learned it takes courage to stand up for worker’s rights and solidarity among workers is key to shaping a healthy and productive workforce.
At John’s Well Child and Family Center, we know that empowered health care employees are essential to society as a whole. Studies show that fair wages are inextricably linked to better service because the reality is that people are motivated to work harder when they’re paid a fair wage. Investing in higher pay for employees has also been proven to reduce illness and increase stamina— two benefits that are absolutely critical for workers in the healthcare industry. Higher paid healthcare workers are less likely to miss work or get sick than their underpaid counterparts, which means that organizations like ours can be fully staffed with healthy people, translating to benefits as concrete as shorter wait times for the patients we serve.
John’s mission for social justice is rooted in a strong relationship with the labor movement because standing up for our employees makes us stronger as a whole. The truth is, we would not be the successful organization we are today without the help of worker’s rights activists. Almost ten years ago, we invited SEIU Local 721 to organize our staff, and in 2015, they helped us become one of the first nonprofit organizations in the United States to implement a $15 minimum wage for our workers. Our workforce makes it possible for St. John’s to operate fourteen different clinic sites and two mobile clinics. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to employ hundreds of employees who provide high-quality health care to hundreds of thousands of marginalized and low-income patients in South Los Angeles, adding up to an impressive 350,000 annual patient visits.
In addition to celebrating the lifesaving care our workers provide, St. John’s is also celebrating our contributions to one of the most critical fights of this decade: protecting the Affordable Care Act. This summer alone, St. John’s staff, patients, and allies have made nearly a thousand calls to legislators who were set to vote on an act that would have destroyed our life-saving health care system. We are proud to have been part of the resistance effort that saved health care access for millions of Americans. However, our work here isn’t done. We won’t stop working until health care is respected as a fundamental human right.
Alongside our local labor unions, we will continue to push ourselves to improve our benefits, pay, and working conditions— all the while maintaining our commitment to elevating the voices of our staff. The partnership and trust between St. John’s and the labor movement has helped build the political muscle necessary to advocate for increased funding, improved quality of care, and greater access to health care services for our community members. The work of American labor activists is a labor of love for our fellow man— and we’re grateful for their unwavering commitment to justice.
During a time of increased income inequality and toxic political divisions, it’s important now more than ever to take a stand for the folks on the ground who provide high-quality, loving care to the most vulnerable among us. The wealthy few will continue their attempts to threaten our progress, but we will not back down. We will continue fighting to ensure that the Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land, celebrating the hard work of health care workers, and paving the way for healthier communities everywhere.
So as we enjoy Labor Day, let’s remember to take a deep breath, relax and to take care of our own health. It’s not only good for us, but it’s good for all of us. Yet another reason to celebrate the American worker. So if you work all the time and never really take a vacation, start a new ritual that honors the original spirit of Labor Day. Give yourself the day off. Don’t go into work. Shut off your phone, computer and other electronic devices connecting you to your daily grind. Then go to a barbecue, like the original participants did over a century ago, and celebrate having at least one day off from work during the year.
And then How do You Get the Most Out of a Day Off?
Elizabeth Grace Saunders reviewed some suggestions regarding your day off. The idea of “vacation” often conjures up thoughts of trips to faraway lands. While it’s true that big trips can be fun and even refreshing, they can also take a lot of time, energy, and money. A lot of people feel exhausted just thinking about planning a vacation—not just navigating personal commitments and school breaks, but deciding how to delegate major projects or put work on hold just so they can have a stress-free holiday. Because of this, some might put off their time away, figuring they’ll get to it when their schedule isn’t so demanding, only to discover at the end of the year that they haven’t used up their paid time off.
In my experience as a time management coach and as a business owner, I’ve found that vacations don’t have to be big to be significant to your health and happiness. In fact, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of taking “micro-vacations” on a frequent basis, usually every other week. These small bits of time off can increase my sense of happiness and the feeling of having “room to breathe.”
From my point of view, micro-vacations are times off that require you to use a day or less of vacation time. Because of their shorter duration, they typically require less effort to plan. And micro-vacations usually don’t require you to coordinate others taking care of your work while you’re gone. Because of these benefits, micro-vacations can happen more frequently throughout the year, which allows you to recharge before you’re feeling burnt out.
If you’re feeling like you need a break from the day-to-day but can’t find the time for an extended vacation, here are four ways to add micro-vacations to your life.
Weekend trips. Instead of limiting vacations to week-long adventures, consider a two- to a three-day trip to someplace local. I’m blessed to live in Michigan, and one of my favorite weekend trips is to drive to Lake Michigan for some time in a little-rented cottage on the shore or to drive up north to a state park. Especially if you live in an urban area, traveling even a few hours can make you feel like you’re in a different world.
To make the trip as refreshing as possible, consider taking time off on Friday so you can wrap up packing, get to your destination, and do a few things before calling it a night. That still leaves you with two days to explore the area. If you get home by dinner time on Sunday, you can unpack and get the house in order before your workweek starts again.
There may be a few more e-mails than normal to process on Monday, but other than that, your micro-vacation shouldn’t create any big work pileups.
The margin for personal to-do items. Sometimes getting the smallest things done can make you feel fantastic. Consider taking an afternoon—or even a full day—to take an unrushed approach to all of the nonwork tasks that you really want to do but struggle to find time to do. For example, think of those appointments like getting your haircut, nails did, oil changed, or doctor visits. You know that you should get these taken care of but finding the time is difficult with your normal schedule.
Or perhaps you want to take the time to do items that you never seem to get to, like picking out the patio furniture, unpacking the remaining boxes in the guest room, or setting up your retirement account. You technically could get these kinds of items done on a weeknight or over the weekend. But if you’re consistently finding that you’re not and you have the vacation time, use it to lift some of the weight from the nagging undone items list.
Shorter days for socialization. As individuals get older and particularly after they get married, there tends to be a reduction in how much time they spend with friends. One way to find time for friends without feeling like you’re sacrificing your family time is to take an hour or two off in a day to meet a friend for lunch or to get together with friends before heading home. If you’re allowed to split up your vacation time in these small increments, a single vacation day could easily give you four opportunities to connect with friends who you otherwise might not see at all.
If you struggle to have an uninterrupted conversation with your spouse because your kids are always around, a similar strategy can be helpful. Find days when one or both of you can take a little time off to be together. An extra hour or two will barely make a difference at work but could make a massive impact on the quality of your relationship.
Remote days for decompression. Many offices offer remote working options for some or all of the week. If that’s offered and working remotely is conducive to your work style and your tasks, take advantage of that option.
Working remotely is not technically a micro-vacation, but it can often feel like one. (Please still do your work—I don’t want to get in trouble here!) If you have a commute of an hour or more each way, not having to commute can add back in two or more hours to your life that can be used for those personal tasks or social times mentioned above.
Also, individuals who work in offices that are loud, lack windows, or where drive-by meetings are common, working remotely can feel like a welcome respite. Plus, you’re likely to get more done. A picturesque location can also give you a new sense of calm as you approach stressful projects. I find that if I’m working in a beautiful setting, like by a lake, it almost feels as good as a vacation. My surroundings have a massive impact on how I feel.
Instead of seeing “vacation” as a large event once or twice a year, consider integrating into micro-vacations into your life on a regular basis. By giving yourself permission to take time for yourself, you can increase your sense of ease with your time.
Some herald the new beginnings that dot the post-Labor Day months – the NFL in full swing, election season in high gear, the first frost, fall’s colors and remember the Mid-term elections and possible transfer of power as the Democrats try to impeach the President. Oh, the surprises ahead beyond who is going to make it to the Super Bowl and which college team will make it to which Bowl game?
But for those mourning another summer that slipped from sight, starts the countdown clock, remember that Memorial Day 2019 is only 267 days away.