My first paying job was cleaning the bathrooms at the First Baptist Church of Carrollton, Ga., where I was a member. I was 14, the minimum age for “children” to work. This was neither glamorous nor exciting work, but useful and needed work. I can remember overhearing the “little old ladies” of the church commenting on the cleanliness of the bathroom - and my subsequent feeling of pride. My actions were helpful and appreciated by those in my community. For providing this useful service I earned minimum wage in 1981, based on the number of hours I worked. The money I earned was spent on normal teenage items: clothes, movies and eating out.
This week marks our nation’s observance of Labor Day. For many, this is the mark of the transition from summer to fall. Schools begin and football transitions from pre-season to regular season. For those of us raised in the South, Labor Day also represents the time to store your white shoes and handbags and to pull out fall clothes.
However, Labor Day was first instituted as a celebration of the working man and in recognition of the labor movement. The nation’s first Labor Day event was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City, where more than 10,000 people took an unpaid day from work and marched from City Hall to Union Square in a visual display of the might of the American worker.
The working conditions of the late 19th century were very different from those of today. As the economy transitioned from agrarian to industrialized, workers had little control over their job conditions. Industrial workers often worked 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week just to get by (72 to 84 hours per week). Young children often worked in dangerous industrial jobs. This environment led to the labor movement and a demand for better conditions and better pay.
With the growth of the labor movement, the idea and observance of Labor Day grew rapidly, spreading from New York to other cities and states. Oregon was the first state to pass an official observance of Labor Day, in 1887. Other states rapidly followed, with 24 states passing laws by 1894. That year Congress passed a bill declaring the first Monday of September to be Labor Day .