Labor Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the first Monday of every September, originating from the U.S. labor movement. Today, the holiday—and the weekend leading up—has been reduced to cookouts, poolside or beach outings, and end-of-summer deals contingent on low-wage retail workers clocking into work on a day meant to recognize and celebrate U.S. workers. Unsurprisingly, the national holiday for workers isn’t a paid holiday or even a guaranteed day off, especially for low-wage jobs, since many workplace standards and practices rely on the employer’s discretion. About 39% of employers require some employees to work that day, and that percentage grows to 63% for companies with larger staff (Recruiter). It also isn’t shocking since enacting Labor Day as a holiday was a gimmicky move that did little to address the issues that workers were fighting. Though the concept of Labor Day is credited to Peter J. McGuire, a union leader who founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in 1881 and helped facilitate the first Labor Day Parade, it would take 12 years and a bloody clash before the event became a federal holiday.
The U.S. labor movement was instrumental in establishing the 40-hour work week, ending child labor, workplace safety standards, anti-discrimination laws, and the creation of weekends and minimum wage. Union organizing during the Industrial Revolution advanced the conditions and rights of people both in the workplace and in society. Incidences like the 1886 Haymarket Affair, when a rally to protest police brutality against striking workers the day before ended in a bombing and further bloodshed, and the 1912 Bread and Roses strike led by immigrant women against wage cuts exemplify the major losses and victories of the movement (AFL-CIO).
• Join local rallies and marches on Labor Day and show your support for workers’ rights and unionizing.
• Donate to local strike funds in your area that support farm workers, factory or industry workers, commercial workers, and more organizing against unfair labor practices.
• Understand your rights in the workplace, the role of unions, and how to start one.
Another notable incident was the Pullman Strike of 1894, a “watershed moment in American labor history [that] brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view” (History). On May 11, 1894, workers at the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company walked out to protest wage cuts, 16-hour workdays, layoffs, firings, and failure to reduce rents in Pullman, Illinois—a company town built by the railcar owner George Pullman where many workers lived and paid him rent (Britannica).
After being turned away by the company and with support from the American Railway Union, upwards of 250,000 workers from 27 states joined in solidarity, refusing to work trains that used Pullman cars and causing “crippling railroad traffic” in the Midwest and disrupting the U.S. mail system. In response, the federal government issued an injunction, or judicial order, forbidding boycott activity, and President Grover Cleveland dispatched U.S. marshals and troops to Chicago to end the strike. The move failed to stop the boycott but increased incidents of violence. In the end, 13 people were killed and 53 were seriously wounded in Chicago, and about 34 were killed nationwide (Global Nonviolent Action Database).
President Cleveland passed legislation on June 28, 1894, declaring Labor Day a national holiday to honor workers mere days before deploying troops against striking workers. It’s theorized that he did this to regain waning support from working-class voters who disapproved of his handling of the strike and to deflect attention from May Day and other labor unrest (Britannica).
While there have been significant victories since the Pullman strike and the passage of Labor Day, including the creation of the Department of Labor (DOL) in 1913 and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that sets a minimum wage requirement, standardized workweek hours and overtime, and outlawed oppressive child labor, similar unresolved issues pertaining to the working conditions in the U.S. continue today (DOL).
Unionized workers from companies like Amazon, Chipotle, and Starbucks are illegally being penalized and targeted for demanding fair wages and better conditions (CNBC, Vice). Last year, educators were striking for basic humanity and respect, while rail workers were blocked from striking for better wages and working conditions. Today, nurses, the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are striking for job security, fair and equitable wages, better work conditions, and more.
The labor movement is still as important as it was in its infancy. And no ploy or holiday beats actual economic and systematic change towards equitable prosperity.
• Labor Day originates from the labor movement.
• The federal and state governments, police, and military often work with employers to obstruct workers’ rights and movements.
• Labor efforts to improve work conditions in the U.S. help pave the way for gender and racial equality.
*This piece was originally published on 9/5/22. It was updated by The ARD on 8/31/23.