Traditionally, Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer, an occasion for family gatherings and perhaps a bit of rest and relaxation.

The observance will be much more somber this year as our nation mourns its losses from a deadly pandemic and looks forward with much less certainty to what the future holds.

This time a year ago, the American worker had much to celebrate. The decade since the end of the Great Recession had brought historic growth. The U.S. economy had added about 20 million jobs, and the unemployment rate had fallen to its lowest level in decades.

Then came COVID-19, wiping out 10 years’ worth of economic gains in just a few months.

Still, in the midst of the picnics and fun in the sun, it’s worth remembering what brought us this much needed break from the weekly grind.

Labor Day traces its origins to the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when the average American worker was putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week just to make ends meet. Children as young as 5 were working in factories earning a fraction of their adult counterparts, and unsafe working conditions were common.

Labor unions had begun to gain strength, and they were organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and demand higher pay.

Amid the unrest, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off Sept. 5, 1882, to hold the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. They marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York City.

Soon, the idea of a “workingmen’s holiday” began to pick up steam, and before long, some states had passed laws recognizing the occasion.

In 1894, Congress passed legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed the measure into law.

In those early years, the holiday itself was a cause for celebration. That paid day off on the first Monday in September was a time to give thanks for all of those brave souls who had come before.

The struggle was far from easy, and things sometimes turned violent. Dozens died. A coal strike in West Virginia stretched on for more than a year before claiming more than 50 lives.

Gradually, though, the holiday became just another day off, and those hard-won concessions started to lose their significance. Child labor laws and workplace safety regulations faded into the landscape.

Still, as you grill those hot dogs and dig into Mom’s potato salad this weekend, don’t forget to take a moment to remember those heroes who brought us the 40-hour work week. We are forever in their debt.

Have a wonderful holiday.

The Anderson Herald-Bulletin

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