Labor Day: the unofficial end of summer. A last hurrah of vacations, barbecues, and pools close for the season. But the holiday is more than just a long weekend – it’s a day to commemorate the immense contributions of America’s working women and men.
As the Industrial Revolution modernized the American workforce in the 19th century, the labor movement developed to protect the rights of working people. Workers unionized to defend their interests and fought for improved conditions, better pay, and benefits – championing such victories as the 8 hour work day, weekends, and the minimum wage.
The first Labor Day was observed on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Thousands of union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched through the streets in support of a holiday to recognize the labor movement. The march, organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, culminated with a day of speeches and picnics in Wendel’s Elm Park. The date for this “workingmen’s holiday” was strategically chosen to fill the gap between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
Not only did the celebration demonstrate the strength of the growing labor movement while drawing attention to the fight for improved working conditions, it inspired similar celebrations nationwide. Five years later, Oregon became the first state to designate Labor Day as an official state holiday. The federal government followed suit and in 1894 Labor Day became a national holiday.
As we celebrate the many accomplishments of labor unions on the first Monday of September, we’re reminded of an important benefit that workers fought for – pensions. In the mid 19th century, organized labor identified the need of workers to retire with dignity and sought to establish a system to provide financial security for a life after work. In 1857, the first public pension plan was established for police officers in New York City. The plan was expanded to firefighters, and in 1894, the city established the first pension plan for teachers.
At the turn of the century, pensions spread throughout the nation and in 1911 Massachusetts became the first state to offer pension plans for its state employees. 9 years later the Civil Service Retirement Act of 1920 established a pension plan for federal employees. You can read more about the history of public pension plans in our report, Why Pensions Matter.
The labor movement was instrumental in establishing protections for workers as the Industrial Revolution drastically altered the American workplace. Over a century later, our nation’s working people continue to benefit from the achievements of unions while facing new challenges as evolving technology once again transforms American labor and political interests threaten progress. As we celebrate Labor Day this year, it is vital we commemorate the achievements of the past while remembering that the fight is far from over.