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A Brief History of Labor Day and Why It Matters to You

For many Americans, Labor Day means the unofficial end of summer, and everything that comes along with that. But, Labor Day is about much more than heading back to school, enjoying one final summer BBQ, or taking in a local parade. Let’s take a closer look at the origin and significance of this unique and important national holiday.
labor day
Children’s Bureau Centennial/Flickr

What does Labor Day celebrate exactly?

According to the Department of Labor, Labor Day (always celebrated on the first Monday in September) celebrates the contributions of U.S. workers to “the strength, prosperity, and well-being” of our nation. Labor Day has also become something of a celebration of the labor movement itself, which was actually responsible for the creation of the holiday in the first place.

When did we begin to observe the holiday?

As with almost anything concerning the labor movement, real change came about slowly. It began with municipal ordinances in 1885 and 1886, followed by the first state’s bill passing in Oregon in 1887. (New York was the first state to propose one, though.) Other states began to participate in the years that followed, which eventually lead to the creation of the national holiday in 1894. This all came about during the thick of labor movement struggles around the turn of the century.

Through celebrating the American worker’s contribution to our country, we are honoring and respecting the rights of these workers in a way that supports the continuation of the triumphs of the labor movement.

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How did the labor movement change life in the U.S.?

The U.S. Labor movement, via the formation and actions of organized labor unions, developed out of a need to protect the common interests of workers. For many, unions and the labor movement led to better wages, more reasonable hours, and better, safer working conditions. The movement also led to a ban on child labor, the development of things like healthcare benefits and retirement plans.

Take a minute to think about what working life was like in the U.S. before these changes occurred. Industry barons (J.P. Morgan, for example) had strongholds of enormous wealth and power while workers literally struggled for survival.

You might have seen a bumper sticker reminding you that supporting the labor movement is supporting the folks who brought you the weekend. And, that’s true. But, there is so much more to it than that. The labor movement not only helped workers earn better pay, working conditions and hours — it shifted the class divisions of our entire society and contributed profoundly to the formation of the middle class, a surprisingly modern construct.

We’ve seen a decline in labor union participation over the course of the last few decades, and that could be happening for a variety of reasons. What’s most disturbing is the fact that many workers have lost sight of the role unions play in our lives and our society. Labor unions still keep working conditions safe and fair, and it’s a fact that workers in unions earn more than those who aren’t in unions.

So, happy Labor Day to all U.S. workers! Consider taking a few minutes this holiday to learn a little more about the U.S. labor movement, and don’t forget to recognize where we are today and to appreciate those who fought so hard to get us here.

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This post was updated from an earlier version previously published on PayScale.


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