A brief history of Labor Day

Another Labor Day will be here and many of us will be spending it with family and friends. For some it’s the last weekend of the summer before school starts. There will be those last cookouts or campouts or it’s a day to go shopping. How many of us remember that what Labor Day represents was bought with sweat, tears and blood?

Labor Day is to remind us that we have a five-day workweek, safe working conditions, that we can take holidays and vacations and other benefits that today many of us take for granted. It took the work of many people in the Labor Movement beginning in the late 19th century into the 20th century to get us those benefits. It was at that time the Labor Movement used strikes with workers walking off the job. While most strikes today are relatively peaceful, a century ago, they could become violent. The idea of allowing workers to organize, to form unions, was looked down upon much more at that time than it is now.

It also took tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City to help turn public sentiment toward unions. It also led city governments to make changes. The Triangle Waist Company paid its employees poor wages, the two owners became rich taking advantage of its 500-person labor force, made up of mostly women and workers as young as 13. They worked long hours over six days. The factory was in a cramped area, taking up the top three floors of a 10-story building. In other words, it was a sweatshop.

The fire broke out on Saturday, March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor. People tried to put it out, even using fire hoses, which turned out not to work. People tried to escape, cramming elevators with 30 people, which were meant to carry 15. Others used the fire escape, which buckled and collapsed. Others tried the doors to the hallways, which were locked according to company policy. The fire department rushed to the scene, but the ladder only reached the sixth floor. On that day 146 employees died.

The fire had two affects. New York City passed a large number of fire, safety, and building codes and created stiff penalties for non-compliance. It also helped the union movement. While garment unions had earlier won a victory with increased wages and lower work hours in New York City, the Triangle Waist Company didn’t agree to the terms. The tragedy helped bring poor working conditions to the forefront.

The Labor Movement also had its martyrs. One was Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant who became a songwriter of the movement and belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World. He was convicted and executed in 1915 for a double homicide in Utah. Several historians have found proof that he was not guilty of the crime.

Before his death, Hill sent a letter to a friend that read, "I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize." Over time that quote became the rallying cry, "Don’t mourn. Organize!"