Workers protesting, holding signs and raising their arms (© AP Images)
Labor Day brings attention to the rights of workers, including good wages and safe working conditions. (© AP Images)

Unlike other U.S. holidays, Labor Day does not pay tribute to a person or memorialize a historic event.  It gives voice to the American worker.

Always the first Monday in September, Labor Day “recognizes the work that has been done by millions of working men and women to come together to improve their wages and working conditions,” said Sarah Fox, the State Department’s special representative for international labor affairs.

A look back

The innovation surge that drove manufacturing during the 19th century had given rise to a “working class” of people employed by others — on others’ terms. By the late 1800s, poor working conditions were a source of social discord, especially in cities, where immigrants were arriving in large numbers.

Many workers believed the labor movement offered a unified voice that would hasten improvements. Organized labor played a role in America’s social and cultural development — and in establishing protections for workers and the first notable commemoration of Labor Day.

On September 5, 1882, New York’s unions hosted a “workingman’s holiday.” An estimated 10,000 workers took the day off without pay to march for reduction of the 12- to 16-hour workday. A quarter million New Yorkers turned out to watch the parade, which concluded with a picnic for workers’ families.

Unions continued the annual celebration, and in 1894 Congress established the first Monday in September as the nation’s official Labor Day. The eight-hour day eventually became the legal standard in 1940 through amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also banned child labor and set certain wages.

Drawing of hands shaking in a halo of stars and stripes (Shutterstock)

A look ahead

“It’s striking how similar labor issues are around the world,” Fox said, “and to some degree that reflects the fact that we are an increasingly globalized economy.” It’s with this global economy in mind that the International Labour Organization adopted four fundamental principles and rights at work, which the U.S. also promotes both at home and abroad:

  • Freedom of association and recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
  • The elimination of forced or compulsory labor.
  • The abolition of child labor.
  • The elimination of discrimination in employment.

Since Americans have many definitions of work based on many different experiences, a day set aside to honor their work reflects those differences. Marching in a parade or not, going swimming or not, visiting friends or not, Americans honor the essence of Labor Day simply, by taking the day off … or not.