As the tide slowly rises on a beach, we can imagine the effect that time has on the details of history. The soft foam of each successive wave melts our footprints into the background until only formless depressions in the smooth sand mark where we once walked. Such is the history of Labor Day.
Details like the size or speed of our impact are gone. And most importantly, there is no sign of what came before us.
The history of Labor Day has become a lot like that. Both Canadians and Americans use Labor Day for one last hurrah of the summer. There are barbecues, parades, and a day at the beach, but most of us have no knowledge or appreciation for the turning point that is being marked.
I’m embarrassed to say that before writing this article I knew none of the details. How about you?
Let’s freshen those footprints by celebrating the fascinating and still very relevant history of Labor Day. After writing this article, I’ll look upon that day with a whole new point of view!
It’s really something to celebrate! See what you think…
So essentially, Labor Day honors “the worker” whose hands have brought into existence everything in our surroundings; every paper clip, coffee cup, book, screen door, light switch, shoe, chair, head of lettuce, etc.
Every paper plate and plastic fork we use today can be traced back to an individual who gets up every day and makes their way to a place that provides the work that puts food on their tables during family celebrations.
Some brace for the worst and often still get it. Others enjoy the best working conditions in human history and we can surely celebrate that!
On Labor Day, once each year, some of us can tip back our favorite beverage and celebrate the 8 hour/ 5 day work week, and the end of child labor on our continent, but I was surprised those were not in place before 1938! That means our parents and grandparents probably had neighbors and friends who were hard at work by age 10 or 12.
I was reminded again that it is still an amazing world (our motto here at EWC) when I stopped to think that my father was born in 1929, and from what I know about his roots, he could easily have been placed in the previous photo. How about yours, or your grandfather?
In doing some background work for this article, I found some grounding statistics about child labor in the 1930’s, most of them from a terrific page on the History Channel:
- It was common for boys and girls to do dangerous and backbreaking work in factories, farms, shipyards and coal mines, even as late as the 1930’s.
- They often worked 12 hours or more a day and kept a 60 hour work week.
- A common wage for a child was $0.40 per day and $1.10 per night.
- In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1930’s that there was an official $0.40 per hour minimum wage was established for children ages 6-18!
- In the 1930’s there were 1.5 to 2 million children under age 15 working in the United States.
As far as adult workers go, things have also been pretty bleak since the dawn of time but the Industrial Revolution seems to have been made possible by the deplorable working conditions that were accepted and expected until the 1930’s.
And the Good News?
Things are getting better!
Have you seen our article called The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen? Check that out after you are finished here and you’ll walk taller all day!
We can also see it in the growing social consciousness of our biggest name brands. Just last fall, Target, Nike, H&M, Timberland, Columbia, Levi Strauss and many other retailers joined forces to transform the standards for global labor conditions in something called the Social and Labour Convergence Project.
There is also growing research to support the concept that improving working conditions is also better economically for industries. Here’s a quote from just one of the articles I came across while doing my research for us today.
It makes improving working conditions seem like a completely obvious trend that is bound to catch on…
“Focusing on electronics manufacturers in China’s Pearl River Delta, KPMG gathered data from more than 70 factories, interviewed management teams and analysed 99 academic studies. The findings suggest that there are tangible benefits to the bottom line when companies invest in improving working conditions. Some of the labour-related investments that were modelled could cause profit margins to rise as much as 0.4% – a significant windfall in an industry where margins typically range between 1% and 2%. In some cases, this financial payback can occur in as little as four to 20 months.” 2
Work of all kinds can be timelessly beautiful, even contemplative, especially when it’s respected, safe and rewarding.
So to wrap up, I think we’ve put down some fresh tracks in the sand during this walk on the beach with the past, present, and future of Labor Day. I’m both more grateful and more hopeful, and now I’m sure to raise my cup in thanks to the workers that came before us!
Stay open, curious and hopeful!
~ Dr. Lynda
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- “Why Do Americans and Canadians Celebrate Labor Day? -Kenneth C. Davis.”YouTube. TED-Ed, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqmPE2HtkyU>. ↩
- De Boer, Yvo. “Improving Worker Conditions in the Global Supply Chain Is Good Business.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/improve-worker-conditions-supply-chain-china>. ↩