COMMENTARY: The origins of the Labor Day holiday

Published: Friday, August 29, 2014 at 03:48 PM.

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.

Some examples:

• 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.



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