Why do we celebrate Labor Day?

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Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, but many people don’t know why it’s a holiday. However, we shouldn’t forget the hard-won victories of the labor movement, which began in the late 19th century. Massive unrest resulted, many events turned violent, and a lot of people lost their lives. It has taken many years of agitating and organizing by dedicated labor activists to get us to where we are today, and many of us enjoy their victories, which include the 8-hour workday, increased pay, and much safer working conditions. 

Coal was first mined in Pittsburgh in 1760. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the average American was still working 12-hour days, seven days a week, in order to eke out a meager living. Also, despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories, and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.

Though the “restrictions” now seem ludicrous to us, in 1849, Pennsylvania became one of the few pioneering states to address the issue of child labor by restricting children to a 10-hour workday and sixty hours per week. Children under twelve were also prohibited from working in textile factories, while those under sixteen were permitted to work provided that they attended school for three months each year. But the law was poorly enforced and child labor continued to spread.

People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities, and breaks. Many lost their lives in workplace disasters. Over the decades, people fought for the right to unionize, and then, labor unions began to organize strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. 

Labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led child workers in demanding a fifty-five-hour workweek in 1903. Born in Ireland, Jones was an organizer and inspiring presence in the U.S. coal, steel, and textile labor movements. In 1919, she was arrested and jailed in the city of Homestead for speaking to striking steelworkers.

On August 26, 1919, United Mine Workers (UMW) organizer Fannie Sellins was gunned down by company guards in the town of Brackenridge, PA, on the eve of a nationwide steel strike,. Her devotion to the workers’ cause made her an important symbolic figure. Both she and Joseph Starzelski, a miner who was also killed that same day, were buried in Union Cemetery, where a monument to the pair was erected.

Fast forward again to 1963, when the federal government enacted the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits wage differences for workers based on sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

On December 31, 1969—shortly after his defeat as a reform candidate for president of the UMW—Joseph A. “Jock” Yablonski, his wife Margaret, and their daughter Charlotte were assassinated in Clarksville, PA. A resident of California, PA, Jock had led efforts to improve working conditions for coal miners. Later, in 1972, reformers were elected to the leadership of the UMW and led to the founding of Miners for Democracy.

This brief history has barely touched on the contributions of countless men and women who have worked tirelessly for all of us to enjoy the rights that we have today. From its very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has been about more than just getting its members a few cents more an hour in wages. It has included both native- and foreign-born leaders, workers who are immigrants as well as citizens, and elements who have not been afraid to challenge the legitimacy of the wages system itself. The work is not done. We have to continue to be vigilant to try to ensure that people are treated fairly, working conditions are safe, employers and corporations are held accountable, our environment is taken care of, and all people have access to jobs where they can earn a living wage. On that note, enjoy your Labor Day, brought to you by your local, national, and global labor movement!