What Labor Day Means in America

August 24, 2023

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.

The surge of innovation in the 19th century led to the emergence of a “working class” employed under the terms of others. The poor working conditions that arose during this time caused social unrest, particularly in urban areas where immigrants were arriving in large numbers.

Many workers saw the labor movement as a means to advocate for better conditions. Organized labor played a significant role in American society and culture, leading to the establishment of worker protections and the first celebrated Labor Day.

On September 5, 1882, New York’s unions hosted a “workingman’s holiday.” Around 10,000 workers took an unpaid day off to march for a reduction in the 12- to 16-hour workday. Approximately 250,000 New Yorkers came out to watch the parade, which concluded with a picnic for workers and their families.

Unions continued to celebrate the holiday annually, and in 1894, Congress officially designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. The eight-hour workday eventually became the legal standard in 1940 through amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also prohibited child labor and established minimum wages.

In keeping with the global economy, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has established four fundamental principles and rights at work. These principles, which the United States also promotes domestically and internationally, include freedom of association and recognition of collective bargaining rights, the eradication of forced or compulsory labor, the abolishment of child labor, and the elimination of employment discrimination.

As work holds various meanings for Americans based on their diverse experiences, Labor Day serves as a symbol to acknowledge these differences. Whether through parades, swimming, visiting friends, or simply taking the day off, Americans honor the essence of Labor Day in their own unique ways.

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