Why we celebrate Labor Day


It’s Labor Day, 2019. As many Americans have this day off, it’s worth remembering the reason why.

Congress made this day a federal holiday in 1894 as a tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Celebrated in a few states and cities before then, the labor movement of late 19th century had a hand in creating the day for all workers in the country.

At the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, the average American worked 12 hours a day, often seven days a week. That included children, some as young as 5 and 6 years old, working under horrendously unsafe and brutal conditions in mines and factories. Children, while working just as hard and long as their adult co-workers, earned a fraction of an adult’s pay.

Labor unions sprang up in reaction to those conditions. Through numerous and often violent and deadly strikes and rallies, the average American’s working conditions gradually improved.

Labor unions helped usher in the 40-hour work week, federally mandated minimum wages, workplace safety improvements, banning children from workplaces, and providing workers with benefits including vacation and sick days, health insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement benefits and more. Unions represented working people through collective bargaining with corporate management, ending the massive labor exploitation of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Collective bargaining is still one of the main roles of unions today.

Today, more than anything else, Labor Day marks the end of summer and, for children and families, the new school year. Labor union membership has been declining in the U.S. for decades, and many feel unions have outlived their usefulness. Whether that’s true or not depends on who you ask.

A 2013 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that union workers still make more money than non-union workers in comparable industries: $18.36 per hour on average instead of $14.81. Union workers also have more access to benefits than non-union workers.

Critics maintain that unions artificially inflate wages and benefits to the detriment of industry profits and competitiveness. They point to historical power grabs and dishonest union bosses as a reason for establishing so-called “right to work” laws and making it difficult to establish unions in “new economy” workplaces. In today’s service economy, the number of jobs in manufacturing or mining are steadily decreasing through automation and globalization.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of unions in 2019, there can be no doubt as to the many ways unions left their mark on our economy. They helped usher in an environment where American workers enjoy, for the most part, safe working conditions and fair pay for a day’s work. And although diminished in numbers, unions are still a powerful force to be reckoned with by American corporations.

For many of us, labor unions are the reason we are enjoying this day with family and friends instead of this being just another Monday on the job.