Many workers in the late 19th century faced harsh working conditions, long hours, low wages, and a lack of workplace safety regulations. To help promote awareness of the workers’ plight and the need to correct the ills they faced, in 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed into law a bill making the first Monday of September each year a federal holiday.
Several decades of labor unrest preceded the establishment of the Labor Day holiday.
Three of the most significant events were the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Riot in 1886, and the first-ever Labor Day parade in New York in 1882.
The railroad strike began on July 14, 1877, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut workers’ wages for the third time in a year. The strike spread rapidly to other parts of the country, and within two weeks involved more than 100,000 workers in 27 states. Violence erupted after President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops to force the strikers back to work, which resulted in many clashes between the strikers and the troops. The strike failed in its immediate objectives, but it marked a major turning point in the battle for workers’ rights.
In the spring of 1886, the demand for an eight-hour workday led to a series of protests and strikes by workers in Chicago. It culminated in a huge rally at Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, which police attempted to break up. A bomb was thrown at them, killing eight officers and injuring dozens of others. Police responded by opening fire on the crowd, killing four civilians, and wounding many more. As horrific an event as it was (and one that continues to be controversial today), it helped raise America’s awareness of the plight of workers.
In between these two events was the significantly peaceful parade in New York on September 5, 1882, that was attended by more than 10,000 workers. It was organized by the Central Labor Union of New York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. The date for the parade was chosen because it fell halfway between two national holidays — July 4th and Thanksgiving. It was a huge success. The idea of a “Labor Day” began to spread to localities throughout the country, and 12 years later, in 1894, it led to the establishment of Labor Day as a national holiday.
The early labor movement had a number of major accomplishments, including establishing the eight-hour workday, which became federal law for most workers in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That act also established a federal minimum wage (25 cents an hour; it had been 10 to 15 cents) and overtime pay for workers who put in more than 40 hours in a week. The act also contained several child labor provisions. It set a minimum age of 14 for most non-agricultural work and 16 for most agricultural work. It also banned employing minors in mining, manufacturing, and other hazardous occupations.
One of the movement’s earliest victories came in 1910, when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a workers’ compensation law to provide financial assistance to workers who were injured or killed on the job.
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act established the right to collective bargaining by unions.
Labor’s fortunes began to change by the second half of the 20th century, for a variety of reasons, including a decline in manufacturing jobs, the rise of the service sector, and the increasing power of corporations. Right-to-work laws began appearing, which made it illegal for unions to require all workers in a facility to join a union, making it more difficult for unions to organize.
Today, there are 27 states and the U.S. territory of Guam with right-to-work laws on their books. As a sign of their effectiveness, about 35 percent of wage and salary workers here belonged to unions in the 1950s. That number today stands at barely over 10 percent, severely weakening organized labor’s power to defend workers’ rights effectively.
Things took an even darker turn beginning in 2017 and the start of the Trump administration. Among the casualties were a number of safety rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
For example, one OSHA rule required employers to provide more protection for workers who are exposed to silica dust, a known carcinogen. The Trump administration weakened that rule. OSHA’s combustible dust rule required employers to safeguard against explosions of combustible dust. That rule was abandoned.
MSHA’s rules that required mines to install more methane detectors, to reduce exposure to respirable dust, and to provide additional benefits to miners who developed black lung disease all were watered down by the Trump administration.
A decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2018 was a major victory for right-to-work advocates, as well, because it ruled 5 to 4 that the government is prohibited from forcing individuals to support a union’s political activities, even if they are indirectly benefiting from those activities.
Jewish law, beginning with the Torah itself, is on the side of the workers on virtually every issue. The Shabbat commandment, as I often note, prohibits anyone from denying workers a day of rest each week. As I so often put it, for one-seventh of our entire lives, coming every seventh day, no matter over whom we think we have power — including our children, our employees, or even strangers (and our work animals) — we have to concede that they have as much right to rest and refresh themselves as we do, and on the same day as we do. (See Exodus 20:10, Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14.)
Judaism requires workers to be paid fairly and in a timely fashion. Thus, Leviticus 19:13 commands, “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.” This includes underpaying someone for the work he or she does (see further on). The verse makes that more explicit as it continues: “The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” Leviticus 25:43, meanwhile, forbids creating harsh working conditions for workers. In its words, “You shall not rule over [the hired worker] ruthlessly.”
Deuteronomy 24:14-15 brings it all home and pointedly extends its reach when it states, “You shall not abuse [take advantage of] a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day before sunset, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it.”
Putting this verse in colloquial terms, workers take jobs because they need to support themselves and possibly other dependents, and so must be paid in a timely fashion. Further, this applies to all workers, regardless of who they are. Discrimination in the workplace is forbidden. Discrimination would include equal pay for equal work, regardless of someone’s gender, say, or whether that someone is an undocumented worker from across the border. Finally, the intent of the verse is to protect vulnerable workers, whoever they may be, and, taken together with Leviticus 25:43, that must extend to giving them safe and healthy working conditions. (The laws of the Torah do not stand alone. They are interdependent. There is no one without the other.)
Our Sages of Blessed Memory took such rights very seriously. In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Metzia, there is an intense discussion of these laws. At one point, the text bluntly states that “one who withholds the wages of a hired laborer is as though he takes his life from him.” That discussion also reinforces the need to pay the worker fairly, for not to do so is considered a form of robbery, which is the subject of the first half of Leviticus 19:13. (See BT Bava Metzia 111b-112a.)
BT Bava Metzia 83a discusses situations in which workers cause damage to an employer’s property. If they were negligent, they might be responsible in a strictly legal sense to pay for the damage, but Jewish law operates on the principle known as lifnim mishurat hadin, going beyond the letter of the law when compassion and generosity are called for. As the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein put it, going lifnim mishurat hadin is “a piece with [Jewish law] and in its own way fully imperative.” (See his Leaves of Faith 2:52.)
Thus, in BT Bava Metzia 83a, the Babylonian sage Rav, as a matter of law, required an employer to return the payment he had exacted from workers for the damage they had done and also required him to pay them their promised wages. Rav cited Proverbs 2:20 to support his ruling: “So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.”
Judaism’s labor laws, beginning with the 3,500-year-old Torah, not only are a testament to its enduring commitment to justice, compassion, and ethical conduct, but they also testify to the Torah’s continued relevance in the 21st century.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.