The History of Labor Day

NOW: The History of Labor Day

SOUTH BEND, IN.-- On the first Monday of September, most Americans will be taking the day off from work to spend time with family and friends this annual holiday.

While many might be hitting the beaches and even the roadways to soak up those last moments of summer, it is easy to overlook why this day is celebrated nationwide.

“With the decline of organized labor in the US over the last 30, 40 years, Labor Day has increasingly become divorced from its roots," said Labor Director and Historian at the University of Notre Dame, Dan Graff. "You want a holiday like Labor Day to be a place where people rest and enjoy recreation with each other but we really lost the roots of it as the labor movement has declined.”

Labor Day was created to celebrate and recognize the work performed by the labor movement and it's impact on improving our ancestors society.

Those efforts include reducing work hours, ending child labor, and creating a safe work environment.

The developments were all spearheaded by the labor movement during the late nineteenth century.

The very first unofficial Labor Day holiday was celebrated on September 5th, 1882 in New York City.

Two years later, 23 other states adopted the holiday.

However, it was not until June 28th, 1894, a whole 12 years later, that President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September a national holiday.

Over time, the meaning behind the federal holiday has evolved.

Nationally, Labor Day is now associated with BBQ cookouts, retail sales, parades, and of course the end of summer.

While it is nice to enjoy some time off, the roots of the holiday tend to be overlooked and lost over time.

“I think it’s important for people, especially in this pandemic, where we’ve had a lot of a conversation about essential workers and their importance. A lot of those essential workers don’t have Labor Day off. There is nothing under American law, that gives anyone the right to any holiday. So we recognize federal holidays but no employer, private employer is required to give a holiday," Graff.

While the holiday isn't officially enforced, the labor movement is an integral part of our countries history.

The Adamson Act of 1916 is a pivotal shift in the movement.

“In 1916 President Wilson and Congress passed the Adamson act that would give the eight hour day to railroad workers only. Railroad workers, like other workers had been agitating for this, but the rail road sector was seen as so central to the American economy that congress was willing to legislate on that industry to try and protect labor peace," said Graff.

While some unions and government employees already had the standard work day of 8 hours before 1916, the Adamson Act was the first federal law that regulated private sector employees work hours later paving the way for other labor laws for most industries beyond just the railroad workers in the 20th century. 

In fact, 20 years later, the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 passed this law granted minimum wage.

Although it didn't set the 40 hour week as a standard, it established overtime pay and youth employment standards that we still follow today with a few slight updates.

“Anytime the federal government has passed a labor law of any kind its inevitably been a response to workers organizing for it, and they don’t always get what they want, sometimes its weaker than they preferred or it only covers some workers— but it’s always a response to the workers movement," said Graff.

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