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  • bethhewett

Why We Celebrate Labor Day: Honoring Those Who Came Before

Labor Day originated as a federal holiday in 1882 to honor working people. Its inception was part of a movement to give people an eight-hour workday as opposed to the more common twelve-to-twenty hours. Ultimately, Labor Day not only gives some people a compensated day off work, but it also recognizes that fairer labor laws are necessary when some occupations must provide services 24/7 or when people, in their greed, forget that their most important asset is the humans who work for and with them.

photograph of my grandmother who worked in a sweatshop

In 1907, my grandmother, Anna Kushnyir, was born in New York—a brand-new American citizen born of Hungarian immigrants. The family returned to Hungary when she was about five years old. At age seventeen, she returned to New York where she worked in the “sweatshops” of Brooklyn as a seamstress. In a tenement lifestyle, she sewed all day—long, hot, sweaty days in buildings with insufficient windows, leading to generally poor ventilation and lack of fresh air. Thread fibers accumulated in the lungs of workers who moved from garment piece to the next piece in rapid, practiced actions. These buildings also had unsafe egress, leading to such tragedies as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 in which 146 garment workers, mostly women, perished in terror. Even after the establishment of Labor Day, sweatshop seamstresses worked sixteen and more hours a day, competing with other companies to put out both sturdy clothing for other manual laborers to wear for their own toil and fancier clothing for the rich to sport at social events.

Over time, Grandmom simply wore down and, at a doctor’s urging, she returned to Hungary for a life-saving health break. There, she met my Grandfather whom she wed. But before she could bring him to America, she returned to the hot, sweaty work of a seamstress to earn enough money to bring her brother to this country and then her husband. Her labor was not only for herself, you see, but also to fulfill the requirement to show that she could provide for and sustain each immigrant man before he could enter the country.

Although not always fairly or thoughtfully practiced, Labor Day was created for people like my grandmother—and later my uncle and grandfather. It was created for your ancestors, too. Labor Day isn’t just a day for back-to-school sales and a final beach weekend. It’s a day that honors the lifeblood of those who came before us, those who died in factory and other manual labor settings, and those who struggled to survive and feed families in unfair, unsafe, and thoughtless environments.

Generally, I write about grief, and maybe you can detect some grief in my words here. How hard life was for Grandmom, Grandpop, and too many others. Labor Day honors their sacrifices—which to them wasn’t sacrifice at all because it was simply how people lived and died. It’s important to be aware that life remains exceptionally hard for many more people today, including migrant laborers who travel from town to town to manually work long hours for barely sustainable pay.

For Labor Day, let’s remember our own ancestors and honor their gifts and offerings that enabled their families (you and me) to come into being and live in this lifetime. Let’s honor their own losses and griefs with prayer and gratitude. And let’s be thankful for their hard work in helping to pass fair labor laws that give us far more than an extra three-day weekend. And, finally, let’s honor those people who continue to labor in unfair, unsustainable, or simply challenging work fields today.

Blessings to all those who have gone before us and to those who mourn their passing from this life.


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