Go ahead, have a hot dog or three. Imbibe your favorite beverage. Go out and play in the sun, provided that the sun remembers this is Labor Day.
It’s a day for honoring the American worker, acknowledging that toil and sweat and dedication are what built this country, from the majestic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge to the gleaming, statuesque new One World Trade Center in New York City. Not that labor is limited to construction. There are teachers, and nurses, and lawyers, and farmworkers, and, yes, even journalists — all of whom have helped create the most powerful economy in the world. All of whom are worthy of celebrating today, even as the notion of the labor movement and Labor Day continues to evolve.
Even today, more than a century after it first became a national holiday, Labor Day is most closely associated with manual laborers and with the organized workers movement that first developed in the United States during the 1880s.
In some circles, Peter J. McGuire, who was a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, is credited with being the first to suggest a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” But others suggest that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was the first to come up with the idea. Oregon was the initial state to make Labor Day a holiday, adopting the idea in 1887. By the time it became a federal holiday in 1894 — largely because of pressure that followed in the wake of a contentious national strike by Pullman railcar workers — 30 states already officially celebrated Labor Day.
As the U.S. Department of Labor explains: “Labor Day 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.”
Those contributions are legion, and they are enjoyed by all workers, both union and nonunion. The organized labor movement helped generate improvements in working conditions that have resulted in the standard eight-hour work day and five-day workweek; strict laws protecting child laborers; improved benefits; and safer workplaces.
To understand the deplorable conditions that were typical in the early days of the industrial revolution, one need only look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911. A total of 146 garment workers perished as a result of the blaze, many because managers had locked the doors leading to stairwells and exits. The tragedy led directly to laws regulating safety procedures in factories, and also to the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for further improvements in workplace conditions.
Over time, unions helped diminish their own importance, as the federal government passed laws that institutionalized many of the causes for which unions were fighting 30 or 50 or 100 years ago. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union in 2012; in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, the percentage was 20.1, which likely was lower than in previous generations.
That cannot, however, diminish the importance of unions in the development of the United States into an economic giant on the world stage. As famed labor leader Samuel Gompers once said, “Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.” No, it’s devoted to anybody who has the skill and desire to put in an honest day’s work.