Can Someone Explain What We’re Actually Celebrating on Labor Day?

Honor Labor Day

As you’re floating in a pool of mental nothingness this Labor Day weekend, try to give thought to what you’re actually celebrating: the achievement of worker’s rights. On the first Monday of every September, the United States pays a patriotic tribute to the labor movement and the contributions workers have made to the country’s well-being. But for most of us, it’s simply a time of year that bids a bittersweet goodbye to summer time, white pants and frankfurter season and hello to a new academic year, shorter days and NFL season. 

It’s also famous for Labor Day’s blowout sales which means our country’s retail workers don’t have the day off and have to work even longer hours. So do firefighters, nurses, police officials, and many others. In a 24/7 Wall St. article, they identified Labor Day’s laborers as those who work in transportation, utilities, security and health care, sectors that the U.S. cannot afford to let have a day off. But at least these workers’ rights are protected in others ways when this three-day-holiday weekend is over thanks to unions and the labor force. Nobody wants to dampen the party to reflect on all the blood and sweat behind this public holiday, but we all should be grateful to the kickass laborers who stood up for their rights and made them ours. 

You’ve Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party (on Labor Day)

Though it seems awfully good-hearted of our country to honor its workers with a paid holiday like Labor Day, it was the fruit of brave rebelliousness and violent protests that enabled workers to finally get what they wanted from our nation’s politicians. 

Daniel J. Walkowitz, a cultural historian who specializes in labor and urban history and teaches at New York University, told CNN that in the latter part of the 19th century labor conditions were extremely harsh. Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island who were unskilled and thus considered cheap labor were often exploited. Average work days were twelve hours. Work weeks consisted of 6 to sometimes seven days. What´s worse, the land of the free also did not seem to blink at children often as young as 6 working grueling hours in often dangerous jobs in mills. Terrible accidents often occurred and though child labor was not allowed, it wasn’t regulated either. So this federal holiday actually began as a way for government to appease a hungry and angry rights-demanding labor force that was tired of being exploited. 

The Human Drama Behind the First Labor Day

The first celebration in honor of laborers took place in New York in 1882. Mathew Maguire, a New Jersey machinist, is credited as the founder of the day for having organized a historic 10,000-person- demonstration in September 1882 to affirm workers’ rights. He is said to have first proposed to the CLU (Central Labor Union) the creation of a Labor Day holiday. After that, Oregon was the first state to introduce Labor Day as an official holiday in 1887, but it wouldn’t be until 1894 that the day was made a federal holiday. In fact, it would take a widespread and bloody railroad strike and boycott, which severely disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest, to get the government’s attention.  

When the Pullman railway car workers in Chicago, fed up with low wages, poor living conditions, and 16-hour workdays went on strike in 1894 the federal government intervened because they had managed to stop the American railway system from operating. Britannica says that at the time of the strike, 35 percent of Pullman’s workforce was represented by the American Railway Union (ARU).  The government called on the federal troops to stop this terribly violent strike where people were killed. Politicians being politicians wanted labor on their side so on June 28, President Grover Cleveland and Congress created the national holiday of Labor Day as a conciliatory gesture toward the labor movement.

“We have paid holidays because of the labor movement,” Professor Walkowitz told CNN. “We have an eight-day because of the labor movement we paid vacations because of the labor movement. We have health care (those of us who still have it) because of the labor movement and it’s (Labor Day) a chance to recognize to recognize those kinds of gains.”

All of this progress came about due to the strength of unions in this country. Workers marched and organized and joined unions to demand higher wages, better conditions and more security. Their efforts are why the majority of us have a 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, and a minimum wage. Their efforts are why we can depend on Social Security, healthcare, Medicare, and retirement plans. 

Goodbye White Pants, Hello Black Pants Season

While no one is certain about the origins of the “no white after Labor Day” fashion rule there are some theories. Town & Country points to a theory having to do with class distinction in the 1900s. White clothing was seen as an upper-class luxury, but when after the Civil War it became harder to distinguish women coming from old money or new money the higher class ladies are said to have set the silly rule to weed out the have from the have nots. Another theory according to Emily Post.com was that back in Emily’s day — the nineteen 00s, 10s and 20s — the summer season was bracketed by Memorial Day and Labor Day. “Come fall and the return to the city, summer clothes were put away and more formal city clothes donned once more. It was an age when there was a dress code for practically every occasion, and the signal to mark the change between summer resort clothes and clothing worn for the rest of the year was encapsulated in the dictum “No white after Labor Day.” Whatever the reason, Michael Kors said it all in one Tweet: 

Ignore the old rules. White after Labor Day is glamorous.” 

Obama on Labor Day

Yes, Labor Day is the end of white pants season, but it’s also the beginning of black pants season. Sadly, it’s also the end of three-day weekends until November. But we all know Labor Day goes much deeper that than all of this superficiality. I’ll leave you with the words of former President Obama in his 2016 Labor Day speech. 

“Do we want to be a country where the typical woman working full-time earns 79 cents for every dollar a man makes – or one where they earn equal pay for equal work? Do we want a future where inequality rises as union membership keeps falling – or one where wages are rising for everybody and workers have a say in their prospects? […]That means standing up not just for ourselves, but for the father clocking into the plant, the sales clerk working long and unpredictable hours, or the mother riding the bus to work across town, even on Labor Day – folks who work as hard as we do. And it means exercising our rights to speak up in the workplace, to join a union, and above all, to vote. That’s the legacy we celebrate on Labor Day.”