Labor Day

Hi, all–

Day late and a dollar short, but here I am! WOOOO! How is everyone? I hope you all have a nice Labor Day weekend, but because I’m a geekoid and historian to boot, I’d just like to remind you all what the purpose of this holiday is.

Read on to see…

This holiday — a creation of the American labor movement — commemorates the social and economic achievements of the American worker. The first one was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882 at the behest of the Central Labor Union. In 1884, that first Monday in September seemed to work out for the holiday, and the CLU pushed other labor organizations to recognize it, as well. Then came a push to get it recognized as an official holiday, and in June 1894, Congress passed an act making that day an official holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Historically, Labor Day was celebrated with parades, but that’s shifted, sadly. I think it would be kind of cool to have a Labor Day parade and then maybe a festival where vendors could set up, but there would also be areas where you could learn about the trades that have built the infrastructure of this country, and also about union and labor history.

Before you run screaming or knee-jerk diss unions, learn how they came about and why they’re important. Once you do that, well, then you can make a decision about whether you think they should be dissed. Unions gave us sick leave, family leave, holidays, better pay, 8-hour days, workplace safety, and stopped the practice of child labor in industries like mining and manufacturing. Historically, unions saved our workers’ asses, and provided them a level of protection from exploitation in the workplace that hadn’t existed prior to the late 19th century. Are they perfect? No. No organization is. But they sure have taken care of American workers, and those workers are responsible for things like our infrastructure and manufacturing.

So learn about the history of the American working class and the workers’ rights movements, which were the basis for the American labor movement. Start HERE. Then have a look at THIS, which describes specifically how Labor Day came about.

And then go HERE, which is a site for HBO’s Triangle: Remembering the Fire. This is a pivotal event in labor history. In 1911, a fire at the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, many of them young immigrant women and teenaged girls. That fire highlighted safety issues at the factory, like a lack of fire escapes and doors literally barred shut.

Many of the workers who died jumped to their deaths rather than succumb to the flames and smoke. That event killed more workers in New York City in one event in history, until the terrible attacks of 9/11. The Triangle fire sparked the modern American labor movement, and in the investigations that followed, the horrible working conditions at the Triangle were revealed, but more importantly, revealed to be common in many American factories. The Triangle fire and what happened in the aftermath changed the American workplace forever.

Here’s the trailer for the HBO documentary:


And for an absolutely riveting written account of that fire, read David von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. He did an astonishing job of patching together the lives of some of the immigrant women who died in the fire, and his descriptions of Gilded Age New York, the huge gap between rich and poor, the brutal lives of workers, and the rumblings of a labor movement and the pivotal role that women played in it will keep you turning pages.

source: Tower

And, SUPER cool — you can watch PBS’s American Experience documentary about the Triangle Fire RIGHT HERE. American Experience provides some of the best documentaries available about American history. I used some of them when I was teaching, and my students said they enjoyed them, so there you go. Documentaries. Not just for old people! 8)

So think about what Labor Day historically has meant to Americans, and think about all the workers who fought hard and are still fighting to bring fairness into the workplace. And enjoy this holiday, because it is a uniquely American holiday.

Happy Labor Day, happy reading, happy writing!


  1. Thanks, Andi, for reminding us why Labor Day exists. Most people just see it as just a day off from work. But, unfortunately, the tragedies and horrific conditions in which people used to work (and still work in some places) are forgotten. Those on the front lines are too often forgotten.

    The Triangle Shirt Factory tragedy hits a particularly personal note for me. My mother and my aunt are seamstresses and worked in factories for decades. My mother used to take me to work with her and, even as a child, it struck me how oppressive it was in some ways. The women sat at these rows of sewing machines and made tons of clothing all day long. The first thing that struck me when I walked in was the smell. It was an industrial odor of chemicalized fabrics, which could not have been good for their health. And for all that hard work, they made very little money, even in the era of unions and safety regulations. I saw my mother’s paychecks and they were pretty sad. When I think about the conditions they would have had to work in if it hadn’t been for those poor women at the Triangle factory, it makes me shudder.

    So, I’m with Andi–let’s try to remember the meaning of Labor Day and all the workers who fought so hard for the rights and good working conditions that many of us enjoy today.


  2. Sadly, I just read on Twitter that the US is one of only 9 countries out of 200 in the world that doesn’t guarantee an annual vacation. So Labor Day is technically the only guaranteed day off from work. This for the supposedly “greatest country in the world.”

    I have mixed feelings about unions but feel that we’d be royally screwed if they get ousted altogether. They do keep non union work places in check to some degree just by existing.

    My fear is these days due to the dire economic situation, many companies know the desperate situation many people are in and can abuse them since people will do anything for work. Without unions it will be the late 1880’s/early 1900’s all over again.

    And what’s sadder is the we are so many generations away from that now so that young people don’t get the history and what their grandparents/great grandparents went through to get rights they take for granted.


  3. Thanks, Andi — well done, thoughtful commentary. Most of the “drudge-y” jobs we may have had, growing up, working in HS or college, do not compare to what our immigrant forebears went thru, just trying to survive, have shelter & put food on the table. & LVLM — Bang On Target!


  4. 1911: huge gap between rich and poor, people so desperate they’ll do anything, endure dreadful working conditions, long hours, work two jobs…

    2011: huge gap between rich and poor, people so desperate they’ll do anything, endure dreadful working conditions, long hours, work two jobs…

    Nothing new under the sun, evidently.


  5. History cycles, sadly, as generations forget what our ancestors fought to ensure. So then we have to do it all over again. I do compare current conditions in this country to what was happening in the Gilded Age, and I’ve been reading even more history about the era, and the parallels are eerie.

    Thanks, all, for stopping by.


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