At the end of the 19th century, many Americans, including children, labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week in sweatshops, unsafe mines, dangerous factories. Their reward? Enough money to live in squalor.
By the 1880s, they were ready to fight for their rights, for a fair share of the wealth, and for a much-deserved day off.
There is no wealth without labor, early labor organizers argued. Eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours of recreation, they demanded.
The day off came first. Labor Day was first observed in New York City in 1882 with parades, picnics, speeches and demonstrations. By 1894, when Congress approved the holiday for the District of Columbia and federal territories including Utah, 23 states had followed suit.
Today, despite joblessness, stagnant wages and a wide gap between rich and poor, Labor Day is less about activism, more about activities. And the movement that brought the holiday about organized labor has fallen on hard times. In 2008, just 12.4 percent of American workers belonged to a labor union, up a tick (.3 percent) from 2007, but down from 20 percent from 1983.
But the reforms these activists and organizers helped engineer safer workplaces, better wages, the eight-hour workday, child labor laws, regulatory agencies, workers compensation, etc. are a lasting legacy from which we all benefit.
The following observations are a tribute to their efforts:
Labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.
Adam Smith, 18th century economist
We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.
Eugene Debs, 1894, American union leader
We should so live and labor in our times that what came to us as seed may go to the next generation as blossom, and what came to us as blossom may go to them as fruit.
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century American orator and abolitionist
The man who doesn't relax and hoot a few hoots voluntarily, now and then, is in great danger of hooting hoots and standing on his head for the edification of the pathologist and trained nurse, a little later on.
Elbert Hubbard, 19th century American philosopher
Many times a day I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.
Ovid, ancient Roman poet and philosopher
The end of labor is to gain leisure.
Constant labor of one uniform kind destroys the intensity and flow of a man's animal spirits, which find recreation and delight in mere change of activity.
One cannot properly appreciate the human realities so long as one labors under the adolescent delusion that people get the fates they deserve.
Nicholas Rescher, American philosopher
Few can be induced to labor exclusively for posterity. Posterity has done nothing for us.
All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The Labor Movement: the folks who brought you the weekend.
From a bumper sticker, 1995