Labor Day always holds a special significance for me. It’s not so much about that last long summer weekend at the lake, or attending a killer concert, or a barbecue on the back patio with family and friends. To me, Labor Day is all about, well, work.
In the late 1800s, people commonly worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Wages frequently did not cover even the basic necessities and vast swathes of the American public lived in poverty. Children, some as young as five or six years old, toiled alongside adults in filthy and dangerous factory sweatshops, mills, and mines. Children earned only a fraction of their grown-up counterparts, but every penny counted. Serious injuries and deaths were not uncommon in many workplaces.
Between 1880 and 1920, immigrants and their children and grandchildren made up more than two-thirds of the American industrial workforce. Immigrants often settled in large cities and, subject to discrimination and dishonest practices, were routinely hired for heartbreakingly low pay. Congress closed the door to mass immigration in the 1920s, but the worker shortage was filled by Southerners who migrated to northern industrial cities.
By the 1890s, non-farm employment had overtaken the agricultural labor force: more than 57 percent of Americans now worked in some version of an industrial setting. This shift brought a growing surge of labor strikes and rallies as workers protested unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and demanded better wages and hours. Unions were being formed, with organizational meetings often held in secret. These activities were often met with a brutal and sometimes deadly backlash from wealthy industrialist owners. But the workers doggedly kept up their protests.
The infamous Pullman railway strike in 1894 crippled railroad traffic nationwide. Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, led the doomed strike. Federal troops were brought in to break the strike, resulting in waves of protests and riots, and the deaths of more than a dozen workers. The direct result was President Grover Cleveland signing an act to make Labor Day a legal holiday, in an attempt to repair relations with American workers.
As labor unions gained strength, poverty-stricken workers began to see possibly better days ahead. The eight-hour workday was introduced for some employees by Henry Ford in 1926, an action that stimulated discussion across the nation. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which required that all full-time workers were required to be paid overtime if they worked more than 40 hours per week.
This sounds a bit quaint and old-fashioned in today’s always-connected work world. Remote and hybrid work have become the norm for many workers in the nearly two years of the covid pandemic. For many workers today, an eight-hour day is almost laughable. Work-life balance has become a big discussion point, not only in chat groups and forums, but also in interviews and hiring decisions.
Here at the Chamber, we research and analyze resources that can help our members make appropriate decisions regarding workforce and labor conditions, whether those employer members are the corner café or the area’s largest companies. We are aware and involved, and committed to the best possible outcomes for both workers and employers.
It’s a great day in Emporia!
“Let’s Talk Business” is a weekly column of the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce and Visit Emporia. The mission of the Chamber is to be proactive in creating an environment for business and community success, guided by the vision that positive attitudes promote positive actions. Contact us at 620-342-1600 or email@example.com and visit our website at www.emporiakschamber.org.