The fruits of labor

Every year on the first Monday in September, Labor Day is celebrated across the nation. Students don’t have school, no one goes to work and even the federal government shuts down, but what exactly are Americans commemorating?

While Labor Day unofficially signals the end of summer, anyone taking a day off from work is automatically fulfilling the very purpose of the holiday – a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the American workforce. Whether they spend it lounging at the beach or at a barbeque with a beer in hand, as long as Americans aren’t lifting a finger at work, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

The first Labor Day celebration was held in New York on Sept. 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Web site. As labor unions began to spread their celebrations to major industrial centers around the country, Congress created a federal holiday in 1894, making the first Monday in September America’s official Labor Day.

“It was the labor movement that won the possibility of leisure for laborers,” said Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The holiday was originally celebrated with street parades of trade and labor organizations followed by festivals for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. And this pattern has continued for over a century, though the parade part has dwindled.

“There used to be big marches or picnics. The workers from various unions would go and they’d hear speeches,” said history professor Richard Stott, who specializes in 19th century American urban and labor history.

Today unions still plan dozens of picnics, marches and rallies across the country in celebration of Labor Day, particularly the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.

“We get together and celebrate the fights that our movement has fought and the progress that we’ve made,” Acuff said. He added that some accomplishments include obtaining the eight-hour workday, health care benefits for laborers and the two-day weekend.

But modern Labor Day events typically don’t involve as many people as they once did at the height of the labor union movement during the World War II era. Americans often prefer to celebrate Labor Day in their own personal ways, and some students said they don’t celebrate it at all.

Said Junior Erica Hastings Monday “It’s a day off from school, that’s it.”

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