America has come a long way since Sept. 5, 1882, when union leaders in New York City organized what is considered now as the nation's first Labor Day parade.
It took a tumultuous 12 years of labor struggles and strikes before Congress and President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday in September a national holiday honoring America's workers. The move was meant to placate restless workers and a labor movement organized to improve working conditions.
Workers united around the largely symbolic holiday, but it took more than four decades before they found real success with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The federal law set a minimum wage, a shorter work week and provided protections for children in the workplace.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal that helped the nation emerge from the Great Depression. The law — and the labor movement — also fostered the growth of middle-class America, raising the standard of living and providing workers with more leisure time.
Perhaps that leisure time is why Americans spend more time these days recreating on Labor Day weekends than celebrating its origins. But this might be the year to spend more time reflecting on the importance of Labor Day instead of congregating at the usual places.
There are a couple of reasons why this is a good idea. The most obvious reason is the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans let down their collective guard as they kicked off summer this past Memorial Day.
Holiday festivities that took place leading up to the final Monday in May sparked a wave of infections across the South that continues to swell. Public health officials warn similar activities this weekend could exacerbate an already tough situation as the flu season approaches.
Workers have seen the value of their paychecks shrink during the past several decades as elected leaders allowed the minimum wage to stagnate and other protections erode. In addition to the health risks presented by this pandemic, it seems to have been used to roll back workplace safety rules and protections that create even greater risks for workers and consumers.
The presidential declaration that essentially kept meatpacking plants operating despite widespread COVID-19 outbreaks among line workers is one high-profile example. Another is the effort in Washington to grant blanket immunity to businesses that fail to protect workers and consumers from injuries related to the novel coronavirus.
The efforts to roll back the progress made by those who led the way toward Labor Day have gained steam while workers have been playing. It might be better if the focus of Labor Day celebrations this year returns to America's workers.