This day is set aside to honor America's workers, specifically its Union men and women. But do most people know the significance or history of it?

Although the first Labor Day was celebrated Sept. 5, 1882, with the Knights of Labor holding a parade in New York City, Congress did not officially declare the first Monday in September a national holiday until June 28, 1894.

But to truly understand and appreciate why and how Labor Day came about we have to go back in history a little further.

Unions have been around for more than 200 years. In the middle of the 18th century, working men formed political parties demanding equality with land owners and merchants. These people formed the Sons of Liberty and played a leading role in the protests against the Stamp Act imposed by the British on the Colonies.

In the early 19th century, workers in Philadelphia, New York and New England fought and even struck for a 10-hour work day and started the drive for free public education for their children.

Solely because of the efforts of unions and their new-found need for political involvement, imprisonment for debt was abolished and the public school system was established in America. Hence the term "Union Free School" came into being.

In 1881, 100 local and national unions, along with regional and local assemblies, formed the Federation of Organized Trades, which later became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886.

Unlike the land owners and merchants, the AFL became the first group that established a non-partisan political endorsement policy.

Through their efforts, new legislation saw arbitration come into being, child and women labor laws enacted, the new eight-hour work day, employer responsibility for industrial accidents and the need for factory and mine safety recognized.

However, the National Association Manufacturers (NAM) embarked on a drive to reverse these worker successes from the late 1800s through the 1920s by spending vast amounts of money to get their candidates elected to Congress.

Labor saw strikes, picketing and boycotts become illegal. Up until the Great Depression of the 1930s, employers, knowing that the courts were less than sympathetic to labor, used espionage, blacklists and established the common practice of firing union organizers or "agitators."

It was the Great Depression, following the stock market crash of 1929 that brought a new Congress and a new concern for labor and workers' welfare.

Since that time, labor fought for and succeeded in getting passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 that reversed suppression to encouragement for union activities and was the first major piece of federal legislation that applied favorably to collective bargaining.

The Wagner Act, also know as the National Labor Relations Act, followed in 1935, and protected employee collective bargaining rights, stopped blacklisting, bribing and spying on employees, and giving special concessions to some employees and not to all.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, know as the Labor-Management Relations Act, established unfair labor practices and 12 years later, the Landrum-Griffin Act, known as the Union members "bill of rights," established dues and reporting responsibilities and that Union elections be by secret ballot.

So you can see that Labor Day is not just another holiday, but a day meant to thank and recognize America's working men and women, union and non-union alike.

Besides the 40-hour work week, we now see overtime pay, safety legislation that protects workers, a public school system that today is taken for granted, and a collective bargaining process that fights for wages, pensions and benefits.

None of this would be in place today if not for America's unions.

Clarence Darrow, the great lawyer, speaker and writer said it best, "Trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of race and for the developing of character in men, than any other association."

Christopher J. Cutter is

Assistant to the President of

Communications Workers of America, Local 1103; he is a New Milford resident.