For millions of Americans, Labor Day is a holiday for backyard cookouts, long-weekend getaways, and saying good-bye to summer. But on September 5, 1882, when the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City, it was a time for workers to call attention to problems brought on by the Industrial Revolution – factories where owners demanded 14-hour workdays, sweatshops where exhausted immigrants worked for pennies an hour, dirty mills where children tended grinding, clanking machines.
Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, was one who insisted that a laborer was more than “a mere producing machine.” A Jewish immigrant from England, he had no wish to destroy capitalism or see workers take over government – often the goals of labor movements in other countries. He simply wanted a better life for the American worker. As he saw it, that was the whole point of America.
“The fact of the matter is that we live in the United States of America, the richest country on the face of the globe,” Gompers said in 1904. “And the millions of honest toilers of America are willing to work to produce the great wealth and place it at the feet of the people of our country, but in return the toiling masses, the great producers of wealth . . . insist that there should be a better life and better home and better surroundings for the great producers of wealth.”
It took some struggle, and at times bloodshed, but the forces of collective bargaining, capitalism, and democratic government managed to make better lives for millions. For decades American workers have enjoyed one of the world’s highest standards of living. Today’s Labor Day barbecues are a restful testament to the work of reformers like Samuel Gompers.