Labor Day is a great time to relax and hit the beach. But before you pack the towel and sunblock, take time to consider the origins of the holiday and the late 19th-century working conditions that inspired it.
• In the 1870s, “‘Breaker boys,’ sometimes as young as 7 or 8, sorted coal from rock for 10 to 12 hours per day in massive above-ground collieries,” notes the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s summary on child labor. “In the same decade, Pittsburgh’s glass industry provided employment to youngsters which exposed them to temperatures of 100 to 130 degrees.”
• In 1886 in Milwaukee, militias were called out against striking workers who had been demonstrating for an eight-hour workday. In the shooting that erupted, 15 people were fatally wounded.
• “Nowhere was the new work associated with the industrial revolution more dangerous than in America,” according to Mark Aldrich in an article on EH.net (a website of the Economic History Association). Mining and railroad jobs were notoriously risky.
“While workers injured on the job or their heirs might sue employers for damages, winning proved difficult... A number of surveys taken about 1900 showed that only about half of all workers fatally injured recovered anything and their average compensation only amounted to about half a year’s pay.”
• “Considering the fact that one out of every 120 trainmen — a railroad category that mostly included brakemen — died on the job each year, it is not surprising that the majority of trainmen considered the loss of a finger to be a ‘minor’ injury,” according to a 2010 project by Stanford University Spacial History Lab research assistant Evgenia Shnayder.
• “Health conditions in New York bakeries were exceptionally bad,” according to a report by the Department of Labor. “In an 1895 study the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics did in cooperation with the bakers’ union, it found that bakers worked inhumanly long hours... Over a thousand bake shops in New York City were in basements. Some of them were ‘cellars of the worst description .... damp, fetid, and devoid of proper ventilation and light.’ Many of them had very low ceilings, forcing workers to labor in a stooped-over position all day. Two-thirds of the bakeries inspected were classed as ‘totally unfit.’”
• Reports in the 1870s from the Massachusetts labor safety bureau noted various occupational health hazards, including the risk to textile workers of a shuttle method which exposed them to fatal lint and dust. “Most operatives became sick after 2 years of exposure to this ‘kiss of death’ shuttle, as it became known.”
• The Massachusetts safety bureau reported this in 1874: “No one who has investigated the history of those employed in the manufacture of matches can doubt that the terrible disorganization of the tissues of the body, which results from long employment therein, is worse than death.”
Today in the United States, such dangerous working conditions are the exception, not the rule. The positive change is due in part to stronger regulations and efforts by the American labor movement — whose sacrifices and reforms are among the reasons for the holiday.
Economic needs have changed since the 1880s. In our current era, most jobs are sedentary and increasingly mechanized or computerized. Many workers still face safety issues — but their greatest overall risk tends to be financial rather than physical. Loss of full-time employment, wage stagnation, eroding benefits (or none at all), and growing income inequality have diminished hard-won progress.
Labor Day festivities took root in the 1880s’ Gilded Age, when enormous wealth and power accrued to the few, and shut-out workers rose up in anger.
There are eerie similarities today, when corporate wealth seems to control the levers of government and average workers just get by, not ahead.
Our “land of opportunity” remains graced as ever with freedom and resources — something to celebrate on this national holiday. But for average workers, life and the economy remain precarious. Can’t we find a more equitable way to grow together, and share America’s gifts?