If we think that doing good is only about helping the elders crossing the road, giving out burgers to the homeless, or sharing positive posts on our website, think again.
Unlike some other countries, the United States of America celebrates Labour Day in early September. Some people usually mark this day by taking the opportunity to gather their friends and family for barbecues or organise the celebratory parade. For some others, it is just another holiday for a pleasant stay at home.
However, history has recorded a long tale of struggle, fight and advocacy that was involved in establishing this holiday and the success of that effort should not be trivialized by thinking that it is just another legit day off that workers could enjoy without getting their salary cut.
Fighting for the purpose of good
It was not just about getting a day off, the purpose was far bigger; the crusade was about the spirit of doing good to the world and having it translated into deliberate policies that take the welfare of the workers into account. The dream was to provide a better quality of life and shape a better world.
Beyond the workers’ esprit de corps, it was about the greater good that they deserved.
In the words of Peter J. McGuire, Labour Day was first suggested as a day to honour those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Matthew Maguire, the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, was inspired by this particular idea of Peter J. McGuire, who also co-founded the American Federation of Labour, that he later proceeded to inaugurate this dream into legislation.
Step by step, the recognition became widespread, from first being passed in Oregon in 1887 to the national declaration in 1894.
So what good has this day brought for the workers? Let’s reveal some of the stories behind it.
1. Of bloody strikes and wage cuts
Tensions between the workers together with their unions and the employers that were backed by security forces have been arising for so long. By the end of the 18th century, matters got worse.
The worsening friction culminated into a strike launched by angry railcar manufacturing workers of the Pullman Company in Chicago. The reason behind the strike was because they had to face 30 percent wage cuts when in fact, the income of the company remained the same.
Alas, the federal government sent in the military to enforce a court injunction against the strike. At the expense of 30 deaths and $80 million worth of damages, US President Grover Cleveland finally signed the bill that made Labour Day a national holiday six days later.
Some analysts did express their cynicism towards that move, claiming that it was politically motivated with the purpose of gaining the votes of the workers since that year happened to be the election year. Having said that, the recognition of Labour Day has at least marked another stepping stone to push forth the effort of defending the rights of workers.
2. The working hours
During the late 1800s, the workdays were as long as 10 to 16 hours in order to meet the requirements of the factories.
Some of the workers then realised that such working hours were very inhumane. Therefore, activists like Robert Owen began to advocate for shorter workdays. His slogan, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” were chanted in the air in 1817. However, it did not become a reality until much later in 1914.
Ford Motor Company then shocked everyone by cutting down daily working hours to eight while simultaneously doubling the wages. The result was astonishing: an increase in productivity was observed. The trend was then followed by other companies until today.
In 1872, the printing workers in Ontario and Toronto, Canada held a strike, demanding for a nine-hour workday and 54-hour work week. A series of advocacy and memorandum followed after, but their request was refused outright by the owners of the printing shops who considered the demands as “foolish,” “absurd,” and “unreasonable.”
The move finally succeeded even though it was accompanied by political competition just like its predecessor in the US. It was said that this fight in Canada inspired the aforementioned McGuire to bring such idea to the US.
A better life, a better world
Both of these historical incidents have brought a profound impact on to the workers. The main consequence, of course, would be the legitimation of Labour Day itself to symbolise the unity and recognition of the workers and their rights.
It needs to be emphasized that both the rights to receive sufficient wage and humane working hours are important in improving the quality of life of workers.
Workers who are not being paid enough will have a hard time to financially support and sustain their life and family. With living costs to bear, they would then be forced to work more or suffer from a lower quality of life.
An adequate amount of quality time with family and friends is a necessity. They are every person’s best source of positive vibes and happiness. The balance between these three which are: work, family and friends, and rest, would assuredly lead to a better life for every worker.
Who would have imagined that one good deed that was initiated centuries ago by our predecessors would cause a major impact that even we are able to enjoy its benefit until today?
On this upcoming Labour Day, let’s take a moment to be thankful to them for what they have fought for. Beyond that, let’s appreciate the workers of today, for they are the unsung heroes who give their best and hardest for the country.