Labor Day, Then and Now

Labor Day isn't just a holiday, it's a teachable moment. In this lesson, students learn about the history of Labor Day and some of the labor movement’s past accomplishments, then consider unions' current challenges and the growing "alt-labor" movement.


To the Teacher:

Labor Day has come to symbolize the unofficial end of summer for many Americans. However, the national holiday, which traces back to 1894, is also an opportunity for reflection on the impact of the labor movement on our lives.
Below are two students readings. In the first reading students learn about the history of Labor Day and examine some of the labor movement's accomplishments in the past 100 years. In the second reading, they learn about organized labor's hard times in recent decades and consider prospects for its revival. Questions for class discussion follow each reading. 

Reading 1:
A History of Labor Day in America

Labor Day, which takes place on the first Monday of September each year, has come to symbolize the unofficial end of summer for many Americans. However, the national holiday, which traces back to 1894, is also an important opportunity for reflection on the impact of the labor movement on our lives.
The tradition of celebrating Labor Day began in the 1880s, when unions organized city-wide parades followed by recreational activities for workers and their families. The first such Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882. However, it took more than a decade for the holiday to gain federal recognition. In 1894, the U.S. Congress established the first Monday in September as a federal holiday. This day was set aside to ensure that "the nobility of labor be maintained," in the words of the House Committee recommending approval of the holiday.
The selection of early September for Labor Day is unusual, since most other countries celebrate the contributions of working people on May 1, or May Day. As an August 2007 article in Forbes magazine explains:

Most of the world marks Labor Day on May 1 with parades and rallies. Americans celebrate it in early September, by heading to the beach or firing up the grill. Why the discrepancy?...
May Day's origins can be traced to Chicago, where the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, under its leader Samuel Gompers, mounted a general strike on May 1, 1886, as part of its push for an eight-hour work day. On May 4, during a related labor rally in Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb, which killed a policeman and touched off a deadly mêlée. As a result, four radical labor leaders were eventually hanged on dubious charges.
In 1888, Gompers's union reorganized itself as the American Federation of Labor, and revived its push for the eight-hour day. Gompers laid plans for a strike to begin on May 1, 1890—the fourth anniversary of the walkout that had led to the Haymarket affair. Meanwhile, in Paris, a group of labor leaders were meeting to establish the Second International.... In an act of solidarity, the Second International set May 1, 1890, as a day of protest...
The Panic of 1893 touched off a national wave of bankruptcies that plunged the nation into a deep depression... Things came to a boil with the Pullman Strike, which erupted in Chicago in May 1894. The striking Pullman Palace Car Co. workers quickly won the support of the American Railway Union, led by Gompers's rival Eugene V. Debs. Railroad traffic in much of the country was paralyzed.
President Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat, was determined to squash the strike. But he did not want to alienate the American Federation of Labor, which was not yet involved in the Pullman dispute. Moreover, 1894 was a midterm election year, and the Democratic Party could ill afford to be seen as an enemy of labor. Cleveland and the Democrats hit upon a possible solution: They would proclaim a national Labor Day to honor the worker. But not on May 1...  Fortunately, an alternative was at hand.
Back in September 1882, certain unions had begun to celebrate a Labor Day in New York City. By 1894, this event was an annual late-summer tradition in New York and had been adopted by numerous states, but it was not a national holiday. Nor was it associated with the radicals who ran the Second International...
On the contrary, the September date was closely associated with Gompers, who was campaigning to have it declared a national holiday. Gompers opposed the socialists and was guiding the AFL toward a narrower and less-radical agenda. Gratefully, Cleveland seized upon the relatively innocuous September... On June 28, 1894, he signed an act of Congress establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday on the first Monday of September.

Owing to this history, some activists have charged that "replacing May Day with Labor Day was part of a decades-long effort to stifle the vibrancy of populist movements."
Such reservations notwithstanding, the holiday has gained widespread acceptance. As labor historian Peter Rachleff writes for the Twin Cities Daily Planet:

Despite its official and non-radical identity, "Labor Day" offered the occasion for the labor movement to express solidarity. Parades, pageants, picnics, and rallies marked the day across the country, complete with banners emblazoned with the symbols of particular trades or expressing labor slogans and mottos. Workers listened to speeches, engaged in political debates, and joined in collective songs. Union members' families were an integral part of the labor movement. Labor Day allowed for the building of a labor culture. Over the next century, the vitality of "Labor Day" ebbed and flowed with the overall energy and life of the labor movement.

The holiday still provides an opportunity for reflection on the impact, successes, and future of the labor movement in the United States.
Among the labor movement's most striking and far-reaching achievements were those accomplished during the 1930s, when widespread discontent about unemployment and poor working conditions provided support for landmark legislation. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the U.S.'s largest public services union, published a list of "Labor's Top 10 Accomplishments." Among these achievements are: 

Passage of the Social Security Act (1935)
This New Deal legislation provided workers with unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. It also improved public health and provided pensions to workers in their old age...
National Labor Relations Act (1935)
Also known as the "Wagner Act," this law served as the foundation for current U.S. labor law, granting unions the right to organize and obligating employers to bargain collectively on hours, wages and other terms and conditions of employment...
Fair Labor Standards Act (1938)
The FLSA granted sweeping protections to workers — establishing a minimum wage (25 cents an hour) and the 8-hour work day, providing for overtime, and prohibiting the use of child labor in all businesses engaged in interstate commerce. Despite breaking important ground, the FLSA excluded large numbers of workers, not the least of whom were public service workers...
Occupational Safety & Health Act (1970)
Providing a safe workplace had been a primary goal of the labor movement since its inception. Many years later, President Nixon — a conservative Republican — was convinced to sign the first comprehensive federal legislation covering safety in the workplace. Unions work daily to enforce OSHA's regulations, and also to expand and refine safe protections for all workers.

Although most people today associate Labor Day with picnicking and taking the day off work, it's also a good time to remind ourselves that the collective action of working people can bring about huge changes that affect the whole society. 

For Discussion:


  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might these be answered?
  2. According to the reading, why is the date of the Labor Day holiday in the United States controversial? Why do some labor advocates prefer to celebrate on May Day?
  3. What are some of the accomplishments of the labor movement that are mentioned in the article? Have these changes affected your life? If so, how?
  4. Many people celebrating Labor Day may not be aware of the holiday's purpose and history. Do you think we should change the way we observe the holiday? How?



Reading 2:
The U.S. Labor Movement, Past and Present

Labor activism has been a part of the U.S. since its founding, with the first labor strike dating back to 1768. In the 20th century, the labor movement achieved major wins, including the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which brought about the 8-hour day for all workers. In the decades after World War II, many unions focused their attention on improving the wages and benefits of their members rather than on a wider vision of economic and social justice.  However, by upholding good wages and conditions for union members, unions helped raise standards for all workers, which played a major role in building a healthy middle class in the United States.

In recent decades, U.S. labor unions have been in decline. As journalist Josh Levs explained in a December 12, 2012 article for CNN:

American unions already have a fraction of the influence they did a few decades ago. Only about 12% of workers are union members, down from 20% in 1983, according to federal data. In the private sector, the plunge has been even steeper: union membership has dropped from 17% in 1983 to 7% today...
So why the downfall of American unions? That depends on who you ask.
Big businesses are behind campaigns to squelch organized labor, and they are seeing some success, according to Gordon Lafer, a political science professor and opponent of right-to-work laws.
"The anti-union campaigns of the last three years, starting with Wisconsin [where Governor Scott Walker has targeted labor], have really been driven... by big national organizations and money," said Lafer, a union member and who teaches labor studies at the University of Oregon.
"I think an important question to think about is: Why are big private companies spending a lot of money and energy fighting public sector unions? They want more free trade, lower minimum wage, the right not to pay sick leave, and all those things which are not per se about union contracts. But the biggest single opponent they have is the labor movement, even in its shrunken and weaker state."
Lafer blames businesses and key business figures for lobbying to push such laws "not because of what unions are doing now for their own members but to get them out of the way on issues that will affect everybody else."
These campaigns stigmatize unions and encourage people who are unemployed to resent unions rather than big business leaders, he argued.

Despite the obstacles they face, working people are still organizing to take collective action. While some are attempting to join traditional unions, others are coming together through what have been called 'alt-labor' organizations."
Reporter Josh Eidelson describes one such "alt-labor" organization in a January 29, 2013 article in The American Prospect

On a warm evening in July, the Chrysler Center Capital Grille in Midtown Manhattan had more than customers to contend with. Inside, diners feasted on a $35 prix fixe dinner as part of the city's Restaurant Week promotion. Outside, protesters handed out mock "menus": "First course: Wage Theft. Second course: Racial discrimination." Some passersby rolled their eyes; others pumped their fists. Dishwasher Ignacio Villegas yelled: "No more exploitation of workers!" His fellow demonstrators—a few co-workers and a couple of dozen staffers and activists from the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)—picked up the chant, Occupy-style...
The ROC is a labor group. But it's not a union. It represents a new face of the U.S. labor movement—an often-ignored, little-understood array of groups organizing workers without the union label. As unions face declining membership these workers' groups—like the mostly union-free job sectors they organize—are on the rise, particularly in New York. Because of their efforts, more restaurant workers in the city get paid sick days, domestic workers receive overtime pay, and taxi drivers will soon have health insurance.
Twenty years ago, when Rutgers labor professor Janice Fine first set out to count the nonunion groups that were organizing and mobilizing workers, she found just five in the entire country. Today, her tally stands at 214. These groups organize farmworkers and fashion models. They go by names like "workers' centers" and "workers' alliances." Some are rooted in the immigrant-rights movement as much as the labor movement. Lacking the ability to engage in collective bargaining or enforce union contracts, these alternative labor groups rely on an overlapping set of other tactics to reform their industries. The ROC teaches workers their rights and also restaurant skills; advises and publicizes model employers; and helps organize protests like the ones at Capital Grille, making customers aware of what goes on behind the dining room. The ROC also lobbies state and local lawmakers for reforms and helps workers take legal action when all else fails...
Why are alt-labor groups like the ROC proliferating? To begin with, unions are in crisis. Over the past 20 years, private-sector unionization has plummeted to just 7 percent. Formerly stalwart pro-labor states, like Indiana, are increasingly emulating Southern states' "right to work" laws, which make unions harder to sustain and easier to break.
There's another reason for the rise of alt-labor: For an increasing number of U.S. workers, unions are not even an option. Labor law denies union rights to increasingly significant sectors of the workforce, including so-called independent contractors and domestic workers, whose numbers are expected to double as baby boomers enter elder care. In 1989, the United States had twice as many manufacturing jobs as service-sector jobs; now the numbers are nearly equal. But many corners of the service sector are virtually union-free—even where, as in restaurants, workers have the right to organize.

Both U.S. labor law and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights assert that all people have a right to come together with their coworkers to advocate for fair wages and just treatment on the job. Although the form that labor organizations take might change over time, the drive to fulfill this fundamental right continues.  

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might these be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what is one reason labor unions are experiencing decreasing membership?
  3. What are "alt-labor" groups? Why are these emerging at this time?
  4. Based on your experience, how are labor unions viewed by the American public? How do you think unions can improve public perception of their work?
  5. Have you had any work experiences where you or your coworkers were treated unfairly? Did you take collective action to address this problem? What was the result of your experience?

 - Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.