FRANKFORT –Labor Day is a day off for many workers. But what is Labor Day, and what does it really mean for America’s workforce?
Certainly, the American worker has come a long way and we can be thankful that we have traveled the distance. We have the right to a safe environment and compensation when we are injured. We are entitled to fair and equal hiring and management practices. And we are entitled to a minimum wage.
Obtaining these rights did not happen overnight. Some of the earliest gains can be traced to the labor union movement in the early 1800s. Most historians believe workers banded together to form unions to fight wage cuts and the increasing power of industries. By the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was underway. New machines were being invented to make the work of man easier and more efficient.
But the working day was still long—12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Wages were low, particularly for women who earned a small fraction of men’s low wages. They were essentially at the mercy of their employers. Union laborers were able to gain higher wages and better conditions through strikes and bargaining. The American worker in turn gained greater status.
One of the first nationwide unions, the Knights of Labor, was a group of farmers, merchants, and garment workers who joined together in 1869 to lobby for equal pay for equal work, the abolition of child labor and an 8-hour workday. (At the time, most laborers worked 10 hours a day.) Their work made a difference, spearheading a movement that would lead to Labor Day becoming a national holiday 25 years later.
By the turn of the century, the life of the average American worker had improved greatly. The federal government began the first worker’s compensation program in 1908. Next came even more statutory change when the first federal child labor law was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1916. The standards included a 16-year minimum age for work in mines and quarries, a 14-year minimum age for other type of work, and an eight-hour work day.
We have more opportunities and benefits than ever before as workers in America. That may be hard for some to believe but, even so, we cannot overlook the steady progress that workers have made in acquiring more rights for themselves in our nation’s history.
This Labor Day week, let’s thank the American worker for contributing to the success of this great nation. Have a good week, and we’ll talk soon.