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U.S. Inside/Background

Labor Day

The first Monday of September, this holiday honors the nation's working people, typically with parades.
For most Americans it marks the end of the summer vacation season, and for many students the opening of the school year.
Usually prices for accommodation and gasoline are dropping.

History and background: Labor Day in the United States

Like most other official holidays in the United States and elsewhere people rarely know why it became a holiday and what should be remembered for that day.

Labor Day nowadays comes down to a three-day long weekend and marks the official end of summer and the 'go' for the new school year.

Labor Day back in the day was very different from what we have now in the United States and the Western World. Today, an 8 hour day is normal and if you actually do more hours it is (theoretically) your choice -- government has no saying in it and the only pressure may come from your employer.

It was not before 1938 that child labor was stopped by th Fair Labor Standards Act. Until then kids were working in factories for 12+ hours on 6-7 days a week.

Adults had no better life and and they worked for low wages 12+ hour days for 6-7 days per week -- certainly no sick days or holidays for them.
It was hard work that defined America's way of life and growth -- yet, there was still the hope to make the American Dream come true but in the end it's fair to say that employers gained the most from it and couldn't care less about the work force. Their thinking was that the workers moved from the farms into the cities to work in factories to have a better life and employers ultimately gave them jobs to make it happen.

But workers were by far not happy with their situation. Workers all over the nation tried to create unions and go on strike to be heard. The first inofficial Labor Day, a 'working men's holiday' was recorded on September 5, 1882 organized by the Central Labor Union in New York City.
The following year there was another one on the same day and Unions all over the nation were asked to do the same thing. Then with the begin of the so-called 'Economic and Financial Panic of 1893', which was a serious depression lasting 5 years, made things worse. Companies tried to cut wages and laid off workers. More protests were the result and hundreds of thousends of workers were ready to go on strike.
President Grover Cleveland ordered troops to end the Pullman Railroad Car strike in 1894 by the means of force.

However, in the same year Cleveland signed actually the official Labor Day into law, may be he felt guilty to have used force against American workers? A strategical political move? Probably.

That was just a symbolic gesture and didn't really change much for workers -- the reforms they were asking came 1938 under Franklin D. Roosevelt and became known as the Fair Labor Laws, which exist nowadays as Fair Labor Standards Act Law (FLSA). Addressed were minimum wage, 8 hour work day, child work, working conditions and safety.

So, in 1938 many things eventually changed, however, Americans became workoholics for other reasons: after WWII economic growth kicked in and a hard working American could climb up the classes of society, driven by the American Dream, the outlook of a single family home, a decent car, and other desirable things.

America made it to the top of all economies but may be not because of the 'overtime / long hours' people were willing to work?
Hard work may have contributed to it but there were more factors counting in: immigration waves before and after WWII brought skilled workers, investors, business people, and scientists to America. Investors from all over the world saw the potential of the country and also the government supported efforts to move America forward, for example by emphasizing education, sponsoring research, scientific programs and more.

The American worker nowadays, after having experienced more economic depressions (70's or 2007) ended up with approx. 13 paid vacation days per year. Add a few paid sick days and that's it.
Is it the American working force which still believes that working as much as you can endure will bring the happiness or even wealth they desire? Or is it Corporate America and the shareholders which dictates the rules by which workers breath?

13 days paid off-time let's the United States appear at the low end on the 'holiday/vacation days' list of industry nation's in the world. German's rake in about 35 days of paid vacation and have one of the strongest economies in the world, even during harsh economic times of 2007-2011. Italians (well, yes, their economy is not in best shape) and France grant their working force even more days off.

For Americans, Labor Day is mostly marking the end of summer and a long weekend but hopefully, may be, only a few Americans (politicians, employers) think about reforms, may be granting workers more days to relax, to spend time with their families, to get motivated for work ...?



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Source: U.S. Department of Labor; NPS; editor's research;
Last modified: 20110923
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