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August 31, 2004 > Labor Day- A Day of National Pride

Labor Day- A Day of National Pride

by Linda Stone

Our nation has been celebrating Labor Day for over 100 years. We celebrate it with picnics, parades and political speeches. It is the last long holiday weekend to enjoy at the end of summer.

The idea for Labor Day came from Peter J. McGuire, a union leader, in 1882. McGuire who is considered the "Father of Labor Day," fought for the eight-hour workday and collaborated with other union leaders on legislation to create a day that would honor workers. "No festival of martial glory or warrior's renown is this; no pageant pomp of war-like conquest... attend(s) this day. It is dedicated to Peace, Civilization, and the triumphs of Industry. It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age - a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded," said McGuire.

In 1894, Congress passed an act that made the first Monday in September a federal holiday. The day in September was chosen to provide a break between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

The struggle of union organizers to create better working conditions was long and hard. In the late 1800's, people sometimes worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Few laws existed to protect workers' rights and abuse by employers was rampant. Long hours, low pay, no benefits and little redress created an atmosphere of anger and despair. As a result, workers began to organize. Protests and strikes became the mode in which the labor unions won the rights we have today.

Today's emphasis on Labor Day has changed from primarily a union day to a day for all workers. Only 8.2 percent of workers in the U.S. are unionized, the rest are union free, said Charles Baird, department co-chair and professor of economics at California State University Hayward. He feels that it is important to distinguish the two concepts. "It is an honorable thing to honor labor but that shouldn't be confused with unionized labor, not that unionized labor shouldn't be honored," said Baird.

May Day, a day to celebrate union workers in Europe has its roots in socialism. Socialism was a popular concept by many union organizations in the early days of the 19th century. But May Day and Labor Day have different meanings. "In the background of this thinking was the Marxist idea of a labor theory of value," said Baird. "Labor Day was promulgated in this country as an alternative to May Day. [Labor Day] was kind of an American substitution for May Day, kind of a not follow the international Marxist movement, but nevertheless, honor workers."

Labor organizations of today still struggle with issues such as the need for health benefits. "Labor Day is a time to remember the struggles of working people in this country and around the globe. This Labor Day weekend, the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council stands in solidarity with the millions of working families without healthcare, and those who are fighting to keep it," wrote Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.

So, go to the beach, take a long weekend holiday, have a family get-together and enjoy this last holiday of the summer, and feel honored. "Workers should be honored whenever they're doing an excellent job and whenever they're productive and responsible for progress," said Baird.

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