Labor Day is always one of my favorite holidays of the year, and not just because of the big parade here in New York, barbecues, great weather and time spent with family. I enjoy and celebrate those as much as anyone else, but Labor Day carries special meaning to me for all that it represents beyond a simple recognition of the value of work and workers.
2023 marks the 129th Labor Day observed under the act of Congress that created it, and it deserves an extra moment of reflection and gratitude because making Labor Day a national holiday was a very minor part of the struggle for workers’ rights.
In the 1890s many workers worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, and if they wanted a holiday, it was often unpaid. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s grousing about Bob Cratchit’s sole day off on Christmas Day wasn’t just because he was Scrooge. His response was, if anything, typical of the time in which its author Charles Dickens—also a crusader for social justice—wrote.
Only years of struggle, pressure and even risk to life and limb helped workers achieve better working conditions and a shorter work week. In 1898 the United Mine Workers won an eight-hour workday. By 1905 the eight-hour workday was common in the printing industry, and Ford Motor Company codified it for its workers in 1926. But it wasn’t until 1938, 44 years after Labor Day was created by Congress, that the Fair Labor Standards Act limited the work week to 44 hours, or 8.8 hours a day (it was amended in 1940 to further limit the workweek to 40 hours).
Today, many working people continue to face daunting challenges in receiving fair compensation, and time off, that they have earned through their work. Contract work has further eroded these protections, where workers commonly exceed the 40-hour work week to make ends meet, and often get no paid time off and no overtime. Rules on worker classification are constantly in flux. Although the pendulum seems to have recently swung back in favor of the worker side, this issue is exemplary of the modern-day and continuing struggle for workers’ rights.
As an organization with deep ties to the labor leadership of this country, we recognize that Labor Day is not only a time to relax with family and friends but a reminder of what’s been gained and at what cost, and that these gains are never guaranteed.
The Declaration of Independence gave us the right to pursue happiness, and several acts of Congress have won valuable worker rights, but we have had to fight hard to realize those gains and keep them from being rolled back. On Labor Day, we celebrate past victories and recognize the continuing struggle for those hard-won worker rights and protections supported by our leaders in Labor.
I’ll be spending Labor Day with special gratitude for those who earned the right for me and thousands of others to celebrate the value of work by not working, while realizing continued progress for worker rights is never guaranteed. I look forward to seeing you and your families on Saturday, September 9th at the Labor Day parade.