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Labor Day is a federal holiday celebrated annually in the United States on the first Monday of September. It honors and recognizes the contributions and achievements of American workers and the labor movement. The holiday has evolved into an occasion to celebrate the end of summer, with family gatherings, parades, barbeques, fireworks displays, shopping promotions, and travel deals. However, the original intent was to pay tribute to the men and women whose hard work and dedication helped build the nation.
The Origins of Labor Day
The origins of Labor Day date back to the late 19th century, during the height of the Industrial Revolution. This was a period of rapid industrial growth, but also a time when many workers faced poor working conditions, low wages, long hours, and exploitation. The labor movement began organizing strikes and rallies to protest these conditions and push for better treatment and safer workplaces.
Some of the most significant labor demonstrations in the 1880s occurred in connection with the fight for an eight-hour workday. In September 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding signs that said "Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation." The average workday at the time was 12 to 16 hours.
A few years later on May 1, 1886, unions called for a national strike in support of a shorter eight-hour workday. Over 300,000 workers from more than 13,000 businesses around the country went on strike. Chicago was the epicenter of the protests. Tragically, on May 3, 1886 a riot broke out at the McCormick Reaper Plant between police and strikers, resulting in several deaths. The following day, during a peaceful labor rally at Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb that killed seven police officers. In the aftermath, eight labor organizers were convicted in connection to the police deaths, despite a lack of evidence. Four were executed by hanging. These events became known as the Haymarket Affair.
The Haymarket Affair made headlines around the world and amplified support for the labor movement. However, it also created negative perceptions about unions, casting them as radical and violent. Labor leaders in the United States thought that creating a holiday to honor American workers could help repair the movement's reputation and celebrate its progress.
Origins of Labor Day as a Holiday
The earliest labor Day celebrations in the United States took place in the early 1880s. Different cities claimed to be the original birthplace of the holiday. Records show that one of the first known Labor Day parades was held in New York City in September 1882 by the Central Labor Union. Other early pioneer states that passed laws recognizing Labor Day include Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
The federal holiday, however, was officially established in 1894 following a watershed moment in Pullman, Illinois. The workers at the major railroad car manufacturing company Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in 1894 over a wage cut. To show solidarity, the American Railway Union (ARU) led by Eugene V. Debs subsequently boycotted Pullman cars on railways across the country. The strike and boycott disrupted national rail traffic.
To end the unrest, Congress hastily passed a federal law setting aside the first Monday of September as Labor Day. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law just days after the end of the Pullman strike. Many historians view this law as an effort to appease workers following the strike crackdowns. The rush also explains why Labor Day ended up placed in September rather than the more traditional date of May 1.
Whatever the motivations, establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday was an important milestone for honoring the labor movement. Thirty U.S. states officially celebrated Labor Day in 1894, and it became a national holiday across all states by 1896.
Traditions and Celebrations
In the decades after its inception, Labor Day traditions formed across the country. Large Labor Day parades and political speeches became fixtures in most major cities. It also became customary for politicians seeking election to participate and give speeches.
Oregon held the first official Labor Day parade in 1882. In 1887, New York City dedicated the first Labor Day parade on a Saturday with a millions spectators lining Fifth Avenue to watch 20,000 marchers. The parade featured floats and brass bands playing music. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor convention designated the Sunday before Labor Day as “Labor Sunday,” a day when union members were expected to attend church before celebrating Labor Day.
Other early traditions included firing ceremonial cannon shots, the dedication of monuments to laborers, and public readings of the 1864 Union anthem “The New Labor Song” followed by fireworks. Picnics, banquets, and family gatherings emerged as popular ways to celebrate the holiday by the early 20th century.
Labor Day celebrations were not limited just to organized parades and events. Newspapers encouraged revelry, sporting events, dancing, drinking, and travel adventures over the three-day weekend. Exodus jams leaving cities by rail and crowding at lakes, beaches, and amusement parks became annual traditions that continue today.
Some southern states were slow to adopt Labor Day initially. In 1894, the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana all refused to issue proclamations for a Labor Day celebration and holiday. They feared that it would lead to efforts to racially integrate unions. By the early 1900s, all states came around to officially recognizing Labor Day.
Modern Labor Day Traditions
Over the 20th century, Labor Day evolved into a more casual three-day weekend marking the end of summer. While labor unions use it to reflect on hard-won benefits like the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, workplace safety standards, and child labor laws, for many people it simply represents a day off work. Retail businesses view it as a busy sale weekend. Travel and leisure industries treat it as the last blast of summer with a spike in vacationers.
However, many core traditions endure in the form of parades, picnics, fireworks displays, and other public events. Some of the largest Labor Day parades that continue to this day include:
- New York City Labor Day Parade - Founded 1882; Features over 20,000 participants from 300 local unions and labor groups, live music, and local politicians.
- Detroit Labor Day Parade - Founded 1886; Over 30,000 people participate, including floats from automotive companies like Ford and GM.
- Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade - Founded 1896; Spans two miles through downtown Pittsburgh with steelworkers, teachers, nurses, construction workers and more.
- Boston Labor Day Parade - Founded 1880; Draws over 20,000 people and features the Boston police and fire department pipe and drum bands.
- Buffalo Labor Day Parade - Founded 1882; Highlights local labor unions and live music while traversing 2.5 miles through downtown Buffalo.
- Chicago Labor Day Parade - Founded the 1890s; Features festive floats, live music and celebrities along a 1.5 mile route.
Aside from these large events, there are hundreds of smaller local parades across states like Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia and Iowa.
Picnics, fireworks, barbeques, concerts, and family gatherings also fill the Labor Day schedule. Fireworks displays light up the sky above large public beaches, parks and waterfronts. The displays along the National Mall in Washington D.C., Navy Pier in Chicago, Freedom Trail in Boston, and Addison, Texas are some of the biggest. Outdoor picnics and barbeques also ramp up, with an estimated 165 million hot dogs and other items consumed over Labor Day weekend.
Labor Day has also become tied to certain sports and entertainment like auto racing, baseball and college football. Major auto races during the weekend include the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina and the Indianapolis 500 in Indiana. The National Football League traditionally kicks off its season during Labor Day weekend with exciting matchups. And the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which raised money for muscular dystrophy research, was synonymous with Labor Day until it ended in 2015 after half a century on the air.
All in all, Labor Day weekend offers no shortage of public events, entertainment, food, and family bonding opportunities. While the meaning behind the holiday has weakened, it still reminds us to appreciate the hard-won benefits afforded to today's workers.
The Role of Unions in Labor Day
It's impossible to separate Labor Day from labor unions. After all, the holiday originated with early unions. In the late 1800s, the most prominent unions included the Knights Of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). These and other groups were integral in organizing for better pay, reasonable hours, and safer working conditions. Unions also pushed for social reforms like banning child labor so kids could attend school.
The unions' efforts did not come easy. They had to overcome strong opposition from big business owners who wanted to maintain low costs and high profits. Workers participating in strikes and protests often faced violent crackdowns. The Haymarket Affair was one such example. But the unions persisted and gained traction by raising public awareness of exploitative labor practices. Though union leaders were not involved with the bombing at Haymarket Square in 1886, the incident convinced Congress and President Cleveland to establish Labor Day as an olive branch.
Once Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, labor unions were at the heart of every parade, speech and celebration in honor of the working class. Union members came out by the thousands to take part in early Labor Day revelry. However, controversy occasionally flared up. When Grover Cleveland sent soldiers to Chicago in 1894 to quell Pullman strike unrest, he was subsequently uninvited from that year's Labor Day parade. The AFL voted down a proposal for a nationwide Labor Day strike in 1909. And in 1916, a deadly bomb blast went off in the middle of a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco, killing 10 spectators and injuring 40 more.
In the 1920s and 1930s during the Great Depression, union membership grew rapidly. The economic crisis spurred workers to fight for higher pay and employment programs. Union leaders were strong advocates for policies in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Labor Day parades in major cities provided unions with venues to show strength in numbers. However, during times of prosperity in the post-war period between 1945 and 1960, union membership declined. Less radical approaches gained favor under AFL-CIO President George Meany. For example, in 1958, he backed the idea for Labor Day to be renamed "National Achievement Day." The concept did not stick, but it reflected unions' efforts to shift public perceptions.
Union influence grew again alongside the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Leaders like Cesar Chavez organized immigrant laborers through strikes and boycotts. However, Labor Day celebrations also brought internal divisions over racial integration to the surface within unions. For instance, segregated unions refused to participate in joint Labor Day festivities.
As globalization and anti-union policies took hold in the late 1900s, overall union membership dropped in the U.S. Rust belt manufacturing declined and labor's political influence waned. Yet through this period, Labor Day endured as a national holiday with major public events, even if participation was lower. Some unions like the AFL-CIO continue promoting Labor Day's working class message through public campaigns. But much of the general public lost connection to the holiday's origins.
In modern times, labor unions face declining membership and less visibility. Only about 10 percent of American workers belong to a union in 2022. In the private sector, it's just over 6 percent. This is a steep decline from the peak in 1954 when roughly 35 percent of U.S. workers were unionized.
However, the pandemic expanded awareness of disparities between employers and employees, sparking new interest in collective bargaining. In 2021, strikes organized by unions made headlines across industries like agriculture, manufacturing, education, healthcare, transportation and food service. Workers at major companies like John Deere, Kellogg's, Kaiser Permanente, Volvo Truck and Frito-Lay all participated in high profile strikes over wages, benefits and working conditions. This rise in strikes invoked shades of the labor movement from over a century ago.
Most major Labor Day events have a union presence, even if participation is diminished. They aim to reconnect the history behind the holiday with the public. In the 21st century, Labor Day remains a moment to reflect on not just the victories of workers who came before, but the ongoing fight for economic fairness, safety and dignity for all.
Labor Day and Politics
From its earliest days, Labor Day has had strong political connections. The 1882 New York City Labor Day parade was coordinated by the Central Labor Union and Irish American activist Peter McGuire, who co-founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Oregon's senator in 1884, Henry W. Corbett, passed the first state law recognizing Labor Day in a bid to curry favor with voters.
When Congress urgently approved Labor Day as a holiday in 1894, the aim was to de-escalate unrest from the Pullman labor strike. President Grover Cleveland both sent in troops to stop the strike, and then signed the conciliatory holiday proclamation just days later. Cleveland was also strongly pressured by unions to designate Labor Day as the first Monday of September, avoiding symbolic May 1.
The holiday gave politicians and elected officials a prime public opportunity to stand alongside labor leaders and working-class voters. Labor Day speeches and parades became a fixture in election season. Senator James Henderson Kyle from South Dakota kicked off one of the first major Labor Day events before a crowd of 10,000 people in Chicago just two months ahead of the 1894 midterm elections.
Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan honed his image as a voice for labor rights at Labor Day gatherings in the early 1900s. When he ran for president in 1900, 1904 and 1908, Bryan delivered impassioned Labor Day speeches railing against big business and the elite class. Though Bryan lost all three elections, he brought attention to inequality and helped pass reforms like the eight-hour workday.
As a former union leader who ascended to the presidency, Grover Cleveland tread carefully around unions and Labor Day. In 1894, he refused to give clemency to imprisoned labor organizers from the Homestead steelworkers strike. But he also pardoned union leader Eugene Debs during a volatile strike so that Debs could run for president under the Socialist Democratic Party banner in 1900.
President Theodore Roosevelt similarly played both sides as a pro-business conservative who also wanted to temper corporate excess. In 1903, he signed the Department of Commerce and Labor Act on Labor Day, elevating the federal labor bureau to Cabinet-level status. However, unions criticized Roosevelt for not doing enough to protect striking miners in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Democratic President Woodrow Wilson had close ties to labor through his advisor Louis Brandeis. He met with the AFL on Labor Day in 1916 to back an eight-hour railroad workday. In 1919, amidst major strikes, he wrote that Labor Day symbolized the dependence of the government on labor’s goodwill.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency in the 1930s and 40s, unions reached the height of power and prestige. Roosevelt's New Deal policies embraced unions as partners in stabilizing the economy. The Depression spurred a surge of union members who could turn out as a strong voter bloc. Roosevelt garnered union votes by steering pro-labor reforms and participating in Labor Day traditions.
Post-war Labor Day tone turned more conciliatory with leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany aiming for stability over conflict with big business. President Dwight Eisenhower signed bills like the 1959 Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act requiring transparency from unions. But he also took actions like intervening to avert a steelworkers strike on Labor Day 1959.
Over the second half of the 20th century, declining union membership reduced organized labor's sway on politicians. However, Labor Day remains a touchpoint for elected officials and candidates seeking union support. Presidential candidates often march in Labor Day parades. And union influence endures in the Democratic Party. The largest unions like the National Education Association and AFL-CIO encourage members to vote for labor-friendly candidates and policies that protect collective bargaining rights.
Overall, Labor Day's legacy in politics is deeply intertwined with the ebb and flow of union power. From its Gilded Age origins through the New Deal era, politicians recognized that cultivating labor goodwill required honoring Labor Day. In the 21st century, the solidarity behind the holiday is less apparent in politics. But it still offers elected leaders a prominent stage to earn union approval heading into election season.
Labor Day Weekend Travel and Leisure
Over the decades, Labor Day evolved beyond its roots as a political event for organized labor into a popular three-day weekend signaling the end of summer. While parades and public events remain fixtures of the holiday, many Americans devote the long weekend to travel, leisure activities, sports, and retail sales.
The travel industry treats Labor Day as the last major weekend to capture summer vacationers. Prior to the pandemic, AAA estimated that over a third of Americans took a trip of 50 miles or more during Labor Day weekend. Highway congestion typically spikes the week before Labor Day as families return from summer getaways.
Popular automobile routes heading into the holiday weekend include Interstates 95, 10, 80 and 40. Major airport hubs like Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta-Hartsfield, Denver International and Los Angeles International all experience surges in passengers. Travel booking sites observe 15-30 percent jumps in hotel reservations and air ticket purchases for Labor Day compared to other August weekends.
Beach locales along the Atlantic like Myrtle Beach, Cape Cod and Virginia Beach entice vacationers with one more summer seaside escape. National and state parks are also busy with campers and hikers. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and other big theme parks run Labor Day promotions to draw families. The holiday overlaps with festivals like the Great New York State Fair and the Atlantic City Airshow.
Major cities often empty out as urbanites take advantage of the long weekend for a quick getaway. Popular driving destinations within 6-8 hour distances of metropolitan areas include mountain resorts, wineries, rural bed and breakfasts, and fall harvest activities at orchards and farms.
The return home on Monday can be slow for those vacationing far from their starting point. Road congestion usually peaks between noon and evening on the Monday of Labor Day weekend. However, the spread of virtual and hybrid work since COVID has allowed some people to work remotely an extra day to avoid traffic.
While still busy, travel trends show Labor Day weekend retreating from its peak popularity during the economic boom of the 1990s. Rising costs, school schedules, and the preference for vacations at other times of the year like spring and early summer have all contributed to the shift. Nevertheless, the holiday remains alluring as a last blast of summer before autumn routines set in.
Retail and Sales
Along with clearing out summer inventory, retailers leverage Labor Day as one of the biggest sales weekends of the year. The holiday traditionally trails only the week after Christmas in terms of sales revenue. Customers are drawn in by promotions like 25-50 percent off summer apparel, swimsuits, patio furniture, outdoor recreation equipment, and back-to-school supplies. Electronics and mattress deals also aim to motivate consumers.
Department stores like Macy's, Kohl's and JC Penney highlight Labor Day sales in weekly circulars. Many launch promotions a full week ahead of the holiday. Online retailers have gotten in on the trend, with massive e-commerce sites like Amazon and big-box chains like Walmart rolling out thousands of marked down items. Recent surveys show that around 60 percent of shoppers plan to make purchases over Labor Day weekend to take advantage of lower prices as retailers make room for fall inventory.
Along with in-store purchases, shoppers also flock to outlet malls located in vacation destinations around the country. They offer combined retail therapy and travel adventures. Major outlet centers that attract crowds over the holiday span locations like Woodbury Common in New York, Simon outlets in Orlando, Palm Beach outlets in Florida, and Seattle Premium outlets in Washington.
Auto sales also accelerate around Labor Day, as dealerships launch model year-end clearance events. Carmakers like Ford, GM, Toyota and Chrysler supply 0% financing deals and generous rebates. Holiday promotions draw customers ready to make major purchases going into the fall season.
The National Retail Federation estimated that back-to-school shopping combined with Labor Day deals would amount to $90 billion in retail spending in 2021. Though less ideal for small independent businesses, the holiday provides a late summer windfall for major chains and online platforms. Consumers are happy to take advantage of slashed prices on discretionary purchases before autumn.
Food, Sports and Entertainment
Aside from travel and shopping, Labor Day weekend revolves around food, sports and entertainment. Picnics and barbecues allow families and friends to savor the last days of summer sun. The long weekend witnesses a spike in hot dog and burger consumption along with beer and wine sales. In keeping with the time-honored tradition of al fresco dining, promotional campaigns showcasing grills, patio furniture sets, chips, ketchup, and various essentials dominate the media landscape in the lead-up to Labor Day.
With schools back in session, college football steps into the Saturday spotlight. Major matchups on Labor Day weekend include LSU versus Florida State, Notre Dame versus Ohio State, and Georgia versus Clemson. The NFL also returns from preseason by kicking off its regular season on the Thursday before Labor Day. The first pro football game often involves the past two Super Bowl participants facing off in a rematch.
Auto racing also heats up with the Southern 500 in Darlington and the Indianapolis 500 over the holiday. Tennis draws attention with the U.S. Open starting in late August and overlapping Labor Day. And baseball enters its homestretch as MLB teams vie for playoff spots through September.
Prime time television turns attention to fall shows and seasons. Networks roll out fresh episodes along with special movie nights. The Syfy channel especially draws audiences by airing its “Sharknado” movie marathon annually over Labor Day weekend. And the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which ran on TV over the holiday weekend for decades until ending in 2015, became a cultural fixture for generations of viewers.
For those seeking entertainment outside their living rooms, municipal concerts, festivals and fireworks displays fill the long weekend with sights, sounds and fun. Summer lovingnes continues at amphitheaters scheduled big concerts. Cities from Boston to San Diego run food festivals celebrating flavors from tacos to seafood. And spectacular fireworks displays illuminate skies above places like Navy Pier in Chicago, the National Mall in D.C. and Seattle’s Lake Union.
Labor Day is also considered the unofficial end of summer fun. Schools are back in session, the new television season is starting, and people's attention turns towards fall. But the extra long summer weekend serves up a final blast of vacation travel, backyard barbecues, savings on discretionary purchases, and leisure entertainment before regular routines set in.
Labor Day and Work-Life Balance
The creation of Labor Day offered a rare and much-needed opportunity for late 19th century workers to enjoy leisure time. Six-day workweeks of 60+ hours were draining and provided little chance for families to relax. Labor Day's designation as a federal holiday promoted the importance of non-work activities. The long three-day weekend enabled the working class to briefly enjoy recreation otherwise reserved for the upper class. Even small moments of escape from the factory or office was progress.
Early Labor Day events encouraged participation in physical fitness, entertainment, education and politics outside of work. Official proceedings promoted exercise through events like footraces. Parades incorporated music, plays, performances and poetry readings. Speeches introduced intellectual ideas and current events. Picnics fostered community. And public meetings allowed civic involvement.
The holiday on the first Monday of September strategically coincided with the time of year when the harvest was being collected but the winter dreariness had not yet set in. The weather was ideal for being outside before the last moments of summer slipped away. Families could spend time together as a unit.
Labor Day arrived just as urbanization and industrial jobs displaced agricultural and artisanal work in the late 1800s. These changes fractured the connection between labor and leisure that was more fluid on family farms. Labor Day created a new common holiday across all trades and classes, from factory workers to business owners.
As the 20th century unfolded, Labor Day solidified as both a recognition of organized labor and an embrace of leisure amid five-day workweeks. The holiday bridges summer vacation season with the back-to-school and work routine of fall. The symbolic bookends inspire people to make the most of the long weekend.
Today, Labor Day often represents the last extended period of rest and recreation before the year-end holidays arrive. People take advantage of the three-day weekend and warm weather to travel, experience outdoor entertainment, reconnect with friends and family, and refresh before the fourth quarter.
With digital connectivity allowing work to creep into personal time, Labor Day also emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries. Unplugging from technology is one way to renew focus on non-work life.
Labor Day weekend is also a reminder that all employees, regardless of collar color, deserve breaks from the grind to enjoy life outside of defining themselves by occupational status. Time for community, entertainment, learning and exercise should not be restricted to wealthy or white collar professionals.
The holiday promotes the value of all work-life balance efforts such as vacation time, family leave and sick days. Labor Day highlights that investing in employees as multidimensional people with responsibilities and passions outside the office ultimately boosts morale, retention and productivity.
Some companies close for the Labor Day holiday to underscore this message. But the retail and service industries pressing on over the long weekend is a reminder that many lower-wage hourly workers lack adequate work-life balance. Labor Day raises the question of how to extend leisure opportunities to all.
This yearly reflection on honoring workers through rest asks, what more can be done to humanize laborers year-round? How can paid time off, flextime, remote work, and other progressive policies create more inclusive access to work-life balance? The community, creativity and revitalization generated by Labor Day weekend inspires ideas for spreading those benefits throughout the year.
Labor Day's Declining Relevance?
On one hand, Labor Day today often feels detached from its roots honoring workers and unions. The holiday is better known for providing a three-day late summer weekend than recognizing laborers. Many people understand it simply as a day off rather than reflecting on the labor movement's history.
Union membership has declined significantly since Labor Day's inception. In the early 20th century, 1 in 3 American workers belonged to a union. Today, it's fewer than 1 in 10. The public is also increasingly removed from the dangerous working conditions that early unions organized to change, like 12-hour shifts in unsafe factories and mines.
With less connection to unions, the holiday seems to many like a government gift of a day off work to enjoy the end of summer. The recreational opportunities far overshadow commemoration of labor history for most. Retailers and travel operators use it mainly as a commercial sales opportunity.
However, the holiday is not entirely disconnected from its roots. Labor unions still organize major public parades in cities across America every Labor Day with thousands of members marching to bolster labor rights and solidarity. Speeches and protests demanding fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions persist. Politicians and union leaders convey messages recognizing workers on Labor Day.
And the global COVID-19 pandemic provided some revival of Labor Day's underlying purpose. Frontline workers in grocery, healthcare, delivery and other service jobs that faced health risks, long hours and low pay found new public appreciation. Labor shortages across many industries have spurred increased calls for rights like paid sick leave and minimum wage hikes.
In that context, the calls for honoring laborers on Labor Day have renewed significance. Major strikes over the past couple years at companies like Kellogg's, John Deere, Kaiser Permanente, Frito-Lay and Starbucks echo labor actions from the Gilded Age when Labor Day first emerged.
Recent unionizing efforts have surged among workers at Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe's and REI. Younger generations especially aim to reinvent labor solidarity. Climate change and inequality concerns also intertwine with reinvigorated worker justice movements.
So while Labor Day's image leans casual, the desire to uplift workers persists in new forms. The holiday may be an opportunity to reflect not just on the past but the future of labor. With union participation declining over the late 20th century, what kinds of organizations, laws and collective actions can empower workers in the 21st century?
Labor Day's legacy reminds us to continue striving to improve conditions and provide fair compensation for all contributing members of the workforce. Its history and ongoing purposes deserve more emphasis amidst the picnics and shopping. Reviving awareness of why the public holiday exists makes it more meaningful.
When uncompromising business owners exploited laborers for profit a century ago, ordinary citizens banded together to demand reform. By continuing to recognize Labor Day, we preserve the possibility of that solidarity and activism flourishing again whenever entitled interests get out of balance. The simple break from work on the first Monday of September represents those who fought for every worker’s dignity.
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