Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday held the first Monday every September. Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.
The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become. The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.
The first Labor Day occurred in 1882 in New York City under the direction of that city’s Central Labor Union.
In the 1800s, unions covered only a small fraction of workers and were balkanized and relatively weak. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union and more modern-day counterparts like the AFL-CIO was to bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.
However, the organizers had a large problem: No government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. The issue was solved temporarily by declaring a one-day strike in the city. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards.
The New York Tribune’s reporter covering the event felt the entire day was like one long political barbecue, with “rather dull speeches.”
Labor Day came about because workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.
In the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average. Sixty years later, in 1890, hours of work had dropped, although the average manufacturing worker still toiled in a factory 60 hours a week.
These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day. They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.
These early organizers clearly won since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.
Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners were actually in favor of giving workers more time off. That’s because workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out.
As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.
The common misconception is that since Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey all declared a special legal holiday in September to celebrate workers.
Within 12 years, half the states in the country recognized Labor Day as a holiday. It became a national holiday in June 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill into law. While most people interpreted this as recognizing the day as a national vacation, Congress’ proclamation covers only federal employees. It is up to each state to declare its own legal holidays.
Moreover, proclaiming any day an official holiday means little, as an official holiday does not require private employers and even some government agencies to give their workers the day off. Many stores are open on Labor Day. Essential government services in protection and transportation continue to function, and even less essential programs like national parks are open. Because not everyone is given time off on Labor Day, union workers as recently as the 1930s were being urged to stage one-day strikes if their employer refused to give them the day off.
In the president’s annual Labor Day declaration last year, Obama encouraged Americans “to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.”
The proclamation, however, does not officially declare that anyone gets time off.
Today most people in the U.S. think of Labor Day as a noncontroversial holiday.
The first controversy that people fought over was how militant workers should act on a day designed to honor workers. Communist, Marxist and socialist members of the trade union movement supported May 1 as an international day of demonstrations, street protests and even violence, which continues even today.
More moderate trade union members, however, advocated for a September Labor Day of parades and picnics. In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day.
There is also dispute over who suggested the idea. The earliest history from the mid-1930s credits Peter J. McGuire, who founded the New York City Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, in 1881 with suggesting a date that would fall “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving” that “would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”
Later scholarship from the early 1970s makes an excellent case that Matthew Maguire, a representative from the Machinists Union, actually was the founder of Labor Day. However, because Matthew Maguire was seen as too radical, the more moderate Peter McGuire was given the credit.
Who actually came up with the idea will likely never be known, but you can vote online here to express your view.
Today Labor Day is no longer about trade unionists marching down the street with banners and their tools of trade. Instead, it is a confused holiday with no associated rituals.
The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off. Although the battle over these issues would seem to have been won long ago, this issue is starting to come back with a vengeance, not for manufacturing workers but for highly skilled white-collar workers, many of whom are constantly connected to work.
If you work all the time and never really take a vacation, start a new ritual that honors the original spirit of Labor Day. Give yourself the day off. Don’t go in to work. Shut off your phone, computer and other electronic devices connecting you to your daily grind. Then go to a barbecue, like the original participants did over a century ago, and celebrate having at least one day off from work during the year!
Labor Day 2020 will occur on Monday, September 7. Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and is traditionally observed on the first Monday in September. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. Labor Day weekend also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans, and is celebrated with parties, street parades and athletic events.
Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters.
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.
People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.
As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.
Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Others gave rise to longstanding traditions: On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later, when a watershed moment in American labor history brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.
On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.
In the wake of this massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. More than a century later, the true founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified.
Many credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, while others have suggested that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday.
Labor Day is still celebrated in cities and towns across the United States with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays and other public gatherings. For many Americans, particularly children and young adults, it represents the end of the summer and the start of the back-to-school season.
Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.
This story is part of a series examining the state of healthcare six months into the public health emergency declared for COVID-19.
There’s no end in sight for the country as it grapples with another surge of COVID-19 cases.
That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.
And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.
National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.
Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.
At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.
Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.
Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”
Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.
CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.
This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.
Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.
When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.
“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.
Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.
She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.
The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.
But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.
Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.
The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.
“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”
The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.
In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.
Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.
“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”
Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.
“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.
He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.
The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.
But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.
“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.
With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.
He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.
“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”
When COVID-19 cases swelled in New York and other northern states this spring, Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in southern California, thought his hospital should have enough time to prepare for the worst.
Instead, he said his hospital faced staffing cuts and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment that led around 600 of its nurses to strike for 10 days starting in late June, just before negotiating a new contract with the hospital and its owner, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare.
“To feel like you were just put out there on the front lines with as minimal support necessary was incredibly disheartening,” Andrews said. Two employees at RCH have died from COVID-19, according to SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing them.
A spokesperson for HCA told Healthcare Dive the “strike has very little to do with the best interest of their members and everything to do with contract negotiations.”
Across the country, the pandemic is exacerbating labor tensions with nurses and other healthcare workers, leading to a string of disputes around what health systems are doing to keep front-line staff safe. The workers’ main concerns are adequate staffing and PPE. Ongoing or upcoming contract negotiations could boost their leverage.
But many of the systems that employ these workers are themselves stressed in a number of ways, above all financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.
Striking a balance between doing union action at hospitals and continuing care for patients could be an ongoing challenge, Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute.
“The nurses association has been very active since the beginning of the crisis, demanding PPE and doing internal activities in their hospitals demanding proper procedures,” Campos-Medina said. “They are front-line workers, so they have to be thoughtful in how they continue to provide care but also protect themselves and their patients.”
At Prime Healthcare’s Encino Hospital Medical Center, just outside Los Angeles, medical staff voted to unionize July 5, a week after the hospital laid off about half of its staff, including its entire clinical lab team, according to SEIU Local 121RN, which now represents those workers.
One of the first things the newly formed union will fight is “the unjust layoffs of their colleagues,” it said in a statement.
A Prime Healthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive 25 positions were cut. “These Encino positions were not part of front-line care and involved departments such as HR, food services, and lab services,” the system said.
Hospital service workers elsewhere who already have bargaining rights are also bringing attention to what they deem as staffing and safety issues.
In Chicago, workers at Loretto Hospital voted to authorize a strike Thursday. Those workers include patient care technicians, emergency room technicians, mental health staff and dietary and housekeeping staff, according to SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union that represents them. They’ve been bargaining with hospital management for a new contract since December and plan to go on strike July 20.
Loretto Hospital is a safety-net facility, catering primarily to “Black and Brown West Side communities plagued with disproportionate numbers of COVID illnesses and deaths in recent months,” the union said.
The “Strike For Black Lives” is in response to “management’s failure to bargain in good faith on critical issues impacting the safety and well-being of both workers and patients — including poverty level wages and short staffing,” according to the union.
A Loretto spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the system is hopeful that continuing negotiations will bring an agreement, though it’s “planning as if a strike is eminent and considering the best options to continue to provide healthcare services to our community.”
Meanwhile in Joliet, Illinois, more than 700 nurses at Amita St. Joseph Medical Center went on strike July 4.
The Illinois Nurses Association which represents Amita nurses, cited ongoing concerns about staff and patient safety during the pandemic, namely adequate PPE, nurse-to-patient ratios and sick pay, they want addressed in the next contract. They are currently bargaining for a new one, and said negotiations stalled. The duration of the strike is still unclear.
However, a hospital spokesperson told Healthcare Dive, “Negotiations have been ongoing with proposals and counter proposals exchanged.”
The hospital’s most recent proposal “was not accepted, but negotiations will continue,” the system said.
INA is also upset with Amita’s recruitment of out-of-state nurses to replace striking ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, asserting the hospital used “emergency permits that are intended only for responding to the pandemic for purposes of aiding the hospital in a labor dispute.”
Amazon is looking to hire two people who can focus on keeping tabs on labor activists within the company.
Amazon is looking to hire two intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats” within the company.
The company recently posted two job listings for analysts that can keep an eye on sensitive and confidential topics “including labor organizing threats against the company.” Amazon is looking to hire an “Intelligence Analyst” and a “Sr Intelligence Analyst” for its Global Security Operations’ (GSO) Global Intelligence Program (GIP), the team that’s responsible for physical and corporate security operations such as insider threats and industrial espionage.
The job ads list several kinds of threats, such as “protests, geopolitical crises, conflicts impacting operations,” but focuses on “organized labor” in particular, mentioning it three times in one of the listings.
Amazon has historically been hostile to workers attempting to form a union or organize any kind of collective action. Last year, an Amazon spokesperson accused unions of exploiting Prime Day “to raise awareness to their cause” and increase membership dues. Earlier this year, the company fired Christian Smalls, a Black employee who led a protest at a fulfillment center in New York over Amazon’s inadequate safety measures in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a meeting with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, company executives discussed plans to smear Smalls calling him “not smart, or articulate.”
These job listings show Amazon sees labor organizing as one of the biggest threats to its existence.
Do you work at Amazon, did you used to, or do you know anything else about the company? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, on Wickr at lorenzofb, OTR chat at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
After this story was published, Amazon deleted the job listings and company spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in an email that “the job post was not an accurate description of the role— it was made in error and has since been corrected.” The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about the alleged mistake. The job listing, according to Amazon’s own job portal, had been up since January 6, 2020.
Dania Rajendra, the Director of the Athena Coalition, an alliance of dozens of grassroots labor groups that organize amazon workers, criticized the listing.
“Workers, especially Black workers, have been telling us all for months that Amazon is targeting them for speaking out. This job description is proof that Amazon intends to continue on this course,” Rajendra told Motherboard in a statement. “The public deserves to know whether Amazon will continue to fill these positions, even if they’re no longer publicly posted.”
On Monday, the Open Markets Institute, a nonprofit that studies monopolies, published a report on Amazon’s employee surveillance efforts, claiming that these practices “create a harsh and dehumanizing working environment that produces a constant state of fear, as well as physical and mental anguish.”
After a week of the jobs being posted online, 71 people have applied to the Intelligence Analyst position, and 24 people to the Sr Intelligence Analyst job, according to Linkedin. The first job was posted in the Amazon Jobs portal in January, the second job on July 21, according to the company’s site.
UPDATE Sept. 1, 12:04 p.m. ET: Shortly after this story was published, Amazon removed the listings from its job portal.