Now that it represents big sales and the end of summer, it might surprise you that Labor Day was originally an organizers’ holiday. “Organized labor was critical in the fight against child labor and for the eight-hour workday and the New Deal, which gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance,” says Chad Broughton of The Atlantic.
What has changed between the 19th century and now? Let’s not forget the history of what is truly a celebration of working people and what we can do when we come together for a cause.
What is the Meaning of Labor Day?
While 1894 was the first year Labor Day was officially celebrated—after President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September a workers’ holiday as a peace offering after setting 10,000 U.S. Army troops on the first truly nationwide strike—the activist roots of Labor Day began on September 5, 1882, when thousands of New York City’s working class took the day off and took to the streets to protest for fair labor practices.
The practices protestors fought for included:
- A minimum wage
- Equal pay for female laborers
- Standard work hours (the 8-hour workday/40-hour workweek)
- Humane working conditions
- Ending exploitative practices such as child labor
These demands were not well-received by the rich and powerful, who labeled the protestors as un-American and did all they could to break strikes and quiet dissent.
This Labor Day, Celebrate Organizers Past and Present
The message that labor unions and organizing are anti-American largely persists, with less than 12.5% union membership across the country today as compared to nearly 25% in the 1970s.
To honor Labor Day’s roots, we must embrace the fact that our power lies in collective action—in organizing. This does not mean forgoing the barbecue or shopping spree; Labor Day is supposed to be one of the few days where we get eight hours for rest and sixteen hours for what we will, so please—do what you will. But as you do it, remember the organizers who started it all, and learn about and support the organizers who continue to fight for our right to fight for our rights.