5 Awesome Things Brought to You by the Labor Movement

labor movement
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Without the labor movement, the modern work experience would look very different. This Labor Day, don’t forget to acknowledge and honor all of the awesome things the movement has helped workers to attain.

Lots of folks across the country will celebrate Labor Day this year with picnics, cookouts or maybe a little back-to-school shopping. That’s all well and good. But, it’s also important not to lose sight of the reason behind the day off work. The U.S. Department of Labor explains on their website that it’s a holiday meant to celebrate the American worker:

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

It’s all thanks to the labor movement

farm labor union
Farm Labor Union, Galena, Kansas, 1938. Photo by George Eastman House, via Wikimedia Commons

This Labor Day, take a little time to reflect on the awesome contributions that the labor movement in the United States has made. Here are just a few things to consider:

1. The eight-hour workday

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will.” – a slogan of the Eight-hour day movement.

It may seem as though the whole concept of a standard 9-to-5 workday has been around forever, but that most certainly is not the case. Workers fought for decades to secure a more manageable schedule. (To put things into perspective, in 1890, the average workweek for a full-time manufacturing employee was 100 hours per week.)

Around the turn of the century, the fight for the eight-hour day gained momentum across the country. Workers from across industries were organizing and demanding better working conditions. A half-century before, workers had fought for a 10-hour day standard. Reducing to an eight-hour day would give workers “eight hours of rest” and eight hours to spend “for what you will” in addition to the workday. This would allow for greater balance and give workers time to rest and recover before heading back to work for another day. Additionally, the hope was that an eight-hour day would help to reduce unemployment, as more jobs could be created.

The standard eight-hour day was realized, but only after decades of intense struggle, strikes and even violent clashes. (The Haymarket Square Riot in 1886 in Chicago being the most notable. Seven police officers and several civilians were killed during the affair, and dozens were injured.)

Imagine how different your life would be if the 10-hour day was still the standard — or, the 100-hour week. Remember that you have the labor movement’s leaders and members to thank for that.

2. The weekend

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What’s your favorite day of the week? If you’re like most Americans, you probably picked Friday, Saturday or Sunday. According to a Gallup survey, these days were the most popular, chosen by 29%, 25% and 23% of respondents, respectively. But, the weekend wasn’t always what it is today.

The idea of taking some time off for religious observation goes back centuries. But, for a very long time, just one day out of seven was observed for these purposes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that some British factories started giving their workers half a day off on Saturday in addition to Sunday. And finally, after decades of campaigning for the right, the labor movement helped expand this to a full day. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor and Standards Act started to require employers to pay overtime to anyone who worked more than 44 hours a week. It was reduced to 40 hours just two years later.

Of course, not every worker in the United States gets Saturday and Sunday off — or even two days off at all, for that matter. The same is true of the 40-hour week. Many workers work much more than that. Many split their time between more than one job, not earning overtime pay even though they work more than 40 hours a week. However, standardizing these kinds of elements helps to move compensation standards in the right direction for workers. Still, policies ought to progress so that a wider portion of the population is able to secure and enjoy the benefits of this type of pay and schedule.

3. Health care, sick days, protective eyewear, etc.

There’s no doubt that there’s a whole lot wrong with our modern health care system. But, for just a moment, take a step away from all of that. Let’s look back to a time before companies were obliged to do anything at all when one of their employees got sick, or even when someone was injured on the job.

There was a time when the only thing workers could count on to keep them safe was their boss’s good intentions. There weren’t always regulations that required that employers meet safety standards — or take any precautions at all to keep workers safe. Danger was simply a part of the deal with many jobs and those who accepted them took their chances.

If someone was injured at work, there was nothing to stop their boss from replacing them right away. Companies were under no obligation to compensate workers for their lost wages or even help them secure needed medical attention.

Thanks to the labor movement, things slowly began to change. The concepts of sick days, health care and even safety equipment emerged and regulations were created to protect workers’ rights, their jobs and their health.

Relying on the goodwill of the heads of companies to secure these kinds of protections isn’t enough. Regulations are required in order to force organizations and their leaders to do the right thing. Thanks to the labor movement, that’s a part of our modern workplace reality.

4. Minimum wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the very first federal minimum wage at just 25 cents per hour. Some people didn’t approve of this change, despite such a low rate. (Congress had been working on alterations to the act for more than a year.) The FLSA only applied to industries that employed about one-fifth of the labor force. But, within those industries, child labor was banned, a maximum 44-hour workweek was established, and a minimum wage was set.

Some worried about the effect these wages might have on American businesses. The night before Roosevelt signed the FLSA, he expressed his feelings during a “fireside chat.” He warned the American people: “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American Industry.”

Today, the struggle for fair wages is very much alive and it’s arguably as needed as ever. Wage stagnation is and has been a major issue for millions of American workers. The economy has been recovering steadily from the Great Recession. But, many workers’ paychecks don’t reflect that fact.

“A crucial measure of how far from full recovery the economy remains is the growth of nominal wages (wages not adjusted for inflation). Nominal wage growth since the recovery officially began in mid-2009 has been low and flat,” states a report on wage growth from the Economic Policy Institute. “This isn’t surprising — the weak labor market of the last seven years has put enormous downward pressure on wages. Employers don’t have to offer big wage increases to get and keep the workers they need. And this remains true even as a jobs recovery has consistently forged ahead in recent years.”

Additionally, executive compensation is totally out of balance with workers’ average wages. A report from the EPI from 2017 found that CEOs in American’s largest firms made an average of $15.6 million in compensation in 2016. That comes out to 271 times the annual average pay of a typical worker.

5. Unions


The fight for fair wages continues today alongside the fight for many other rights. And, many workers still don’t have access to many of the other awesome protections that the labor movement helped to secure for some. Thankfully, labor unions continue to stand on the front lines of these battles, securing better working conditions and compensation for employees.

Study after study has shown that labor unions are good for workers. In fact, one of the reasons for the current wage stagnation is a decline and erosion in the power of American unions. The wages of unionized workers are about 12% higher, on average, than the wages of their nonunionized counterparts. The gap is even higher for workers of color and those without a college degree. Companies with union employees contribute 56% more to workers’ retirement. And, they provide 11% more toward workers’ health care, just to name a few important statistics.

The work of labor unions is vital in order for American workers to continue to make progress toward fair compensation and better working continuous.

This Labor Day, think back on how far we’ve come, thanks to the labor movement. And, imagine the progress that could be made in the decades ahead.

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