Here we are again – Labor Day! Ah, I can smell the glorious scents wafting from people’s backyard barbecues. I hear the children playing outside, getting in those last moments of fun before their school year begins. I see everyone spending time relaxing with family and friends, happy to have a day off to relax.
I also see many cars on the road. People heading out to the grocery store for missing ingredients. People heading out to mini golf, movies, and amusement parks to be entertained. People heading out to stores on the constant search for deals and specials. People heading out to restaurants for a great meal so they don’t need to cook. People heading out to visit family and friends this weekend, traveling through airports, train stations and interstate rest areas.
Do we remember the MANY workers who are not off today? The workers who toil to make our day off, our Labor Day holiday enjoyable?
We often lose our perspective and do not realize that not everyone around us is experiencing the same appreciation for the work they do. The first “Labor Day” was on Monday September 5 in 1882 when the Central Labor Union in NYC held a public event to raise awareness to the plight of worker’s regarding wages and dangerous working conditions. Many workers in the 19th century worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in harsh conditions. Workers took UNPAID time off to participate in the event which began with a protest parade carrying pro-labor signs, then a picnic with speeches, with the event ending with fireworks and dancing. An estimated 20,000-50,000 workers and families participated during this 8-hour event. In 1887, 5 states (OR, MA, NY, NJ, CO) designated the Labor Day holiday as a day off to honor laborers. By the time President Grover Cleveland signed the declaration to make the 1st Monday of September a national holiday on June 28, 1894, 23 states had already joined in.
Our Labor Day has morphed from a day to recognize the iniquities of workers into a day of fun, sun and deals primarily for those who already have fair working situations. One out of every four Americans will still be working this Labor Day, most of whom are from the lower wage earners with the longest hours.
Judaism has a long history of fighting for the rights of all workers. The Torah, Talmud and other historical writings from our religion is filled with rules and discussions about how to treat all workers fairly. In Leviticus, we are reminded that we must pay one who does work promptly, as the “wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.” In Deuteronomy, we learn that just as the Israelites must rest on Shabbat, so too must there be an opportunity for their “servants” to rest, even if they are not Israelites. We must recognize and treat anyone who works for us with dignity, respect, and honor. To do less than that diminishes us as much as them.
On this Labor Day, I encourage you to remember that not everyone is “off” today. Not everyone is receiving a fair wage. Not everyone is in a safe working condition. Consider the blessing we have of this holiday, and that there is still work to be done to honor those who created this day as an opportunity to bring us to a fair place over a century ago.
One final thought – if you encounter someone who is working on this holiday, say THANK YOU to them. Let us all remember that they are working to make OUR day off pleasant, safe and enjoyable.