On This Labor Day

Every first Monday in September more than half of Americans fire up the grill to prepare for a relaxing day with great food and great friends. And it’s well-earned: most of those workers will have labored for their employers nearly 2,000 hours since the previous Labor Day. Whew. But even those who work the hardest sometimes lose sight of the history and meaning of this important day. After all, who wants to think about work on a day off? But Labor Day is exactly the day we should spend thinking about work, even as we enjoy, if we’re lucky, a day off from doing it.

Labor Day is rooted in 19th-century trade union efforts to recognize, honor, and celebrate the contributions of laborers, and especially those active in the ongoing fight for quality of life and work across the United States. The day became an official U.S. federal holiday in 1894, though by then it had been recognized and celebrated by more than 30 states. But laborers and their allies have been fighting for rights and recognition long before that—you can even find references to the honor and protection of workers in biblical passages and historic oral storytelling.

We’re still fighting for those rights and protections more than 2,000 years later.

While the labor movement has persisted throughout history—more than 3,000 cubic feet of historical labor documents sit in the University of Washington’s Labor Archives alone—many of its biggest gains were concentrated between 1930 and 1980, when union membership was high enough, and its influence strong enough, to engage in massive strikes and negotiations. Those efforts gave us weekends, overtime pay, fair and more equal wages, family medical leave, and made employer-sponsored health benefits the norm. During that time, it was the collective middle class who called the shots. But labor is a long game, and we’ve seen it ourselves over the last 30 years of waning union membership, and certainly in the last year and a half, that no matter how long we’ve been fighting or how far we’ve come, the fight for workers rights will never be over. Anything we win today we can lose it tomorrow if we’re not standing unified and vigilant.

It’s our job, now, to carry today’s labor movement forward, and to fight not only for evergreen issues like fair wages and health benefits and safe workplaces, but also for rights and protections unique to changing demands of the modern workplace. Tomorrow’s workers depend on the hard work and sacrifices we make today, as we have benefited from the hard work and sacrifices of those who came before us. If we lose sight of the origins and significance of Labor Day, we stand to lose far more than just a day off.

So let’s take this well-earned day for ourselves, but let’s do so with reverence and renewal of our commitment to that long fight for our fellow American workers and their families. Let’s elect pro-worker candidates to office no matter their party. Let’s encourage others to join unions to strengthen not only their own futures, but those of their communities. Let’s lend our voices to the critical issues of the day, and to those who have no voice. And always let’s wear our union labels with pride for all to see, so that they may understand and be inspired, or intimidated if necessary, by our power and unity.

Happy Labor Day.