Happy Labor Day! What Is Labor Day?

By Sydnee Mata

Many of you may be asking yourselves today, what is Labor Day? If you are, don’t worry. I promise you’re not alone! Labor Day is a unique holiday. One that may be ignored or overlooked nowadays. There doesn’t seem to be any well-known or specific traditions we use to celebrate Labor Day. We don’t go out and buy copious amounts of candy to hand out to our neighbors or buy chocolates and expensive jewelry for our loved ones or decorate a tree, light candles, or sing songs. I mean come on, the list of holiday traditions could go on forever, but where does Labor Day fit in? So seriously, why do we have a Labor Day holiday? What is it, and why should we care about honoring and celebrating it?

The American labor movement

During the mid to late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was booming in the United States and so was our economy, but at what cost? Working conditions were harmful, unsafe, strenuous, and often inhumane. Companies viewed workers as expendable and insignificant. Fueled by mistreatment, workers began forming unions and advocating for protection against the exploitation of employees. Workers joined together to demand fair wages, safe working conditions, an end to child labor and protection in the event of injury or discrimination, and sensible work hours. These efforts were later known as the American labor movement. This movement began in the late 1700s. Although the movement does not appear as powerful and prevalent as it once was, unions and labor activists continue to make a positive impact on worker rights across the country.

History of Labor Day

Labor Day was strongly celebrated in the late 1800s, when the reality of poor working conditions were fresh in the minds of workers. Nowadays, we are accustomed to the U.S. Department of Labor enforcing and protecting worker rights. But it’s important to note that those rights were a direct result of labor activists organizing a movement so powerful that our government could not ignore it.

Despite not yet being a federal holiday, workers and labor unions flooded the streets on September 5, 1882, to celebrate what is now known as the first Labor Day parade (U.S. Department of Labor). As the Labor Day movement grew and became more powerful, states began adopting this holiday. On June 28, 1894, Labor Day became a federal holiday to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of the American labor movement. From that day forward, Labor Day was to be celebrated on the first Monday of each September.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Imagine the United States without a minimum wage, work hour limits, age limits for labor, and overtime pay. Although the labor movement began over 100 years prior, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted in 1938 (U.S. Department of Labor). Thanks to the protections of this federal law, the 40-hour workweek was established.

Prior to the law, there were no restrictions on work hours. This law established overtime benefits for qualifying positions, requiring that employees be paid one and one-half times the employee’s regular wage (Office of Financial Management). That being said, FLSA is a perfect example of how the issue of worker rights remains relevant to this day. Although we have this federal protection, there are flaws within the policy that activists continue to challenge today.

Enjoy your Labor Day

Our hope of sharing the rich history of Labor Day with you is that it will inspire you to take action on what you are most passionate about and remind you that change can happen with collective efforts. Labor Day was earned by the extensive efforts from worker rights activists, employees, and labor unions. Their persistence is why we can all enjoy the worker rights we have today, so let’s use Labor Day to celebrate and honor their achievements. Go out, enjoy your day, spend time with your family, rest, recharge, or simply do whatever you want. Happy Labor Day!

If you’re interested in staying up to date on employment and labor law, we highly recommend checking out Labor Days Blog.

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The Strike For Our Rights blog is an educational and inspirational space run by our grassroots-led volunteers. 

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