A Labor of a Day

Labor Day weekend is upon us. After… well… laboring away for a while without a (state-sanction) 3-day weekend, it’s time to finally kickback and unwind! The typical Sunday dread that accompanies that gradual realization of a return to work the following day is postponed to Monday. A reward for our hard work during the year? Or the result of years of struggle carried out by workers just like us in the late 19th century? One might be inclined to think that there is a reason for the specificity in the second question. Let’s look at the history of Labor Day to see if that instinct is right. Given our status as a law library, let’s point towards some of the legal battles surrounding the emergence of Labor Day as a federally recognized holiday (one should remember that this isn’t a title shared with many other holidays!).

Labor Day, as many aspects of United States Law do, began at a local level, spread to the state level, and after a long struggle, was finally accepted at the federal level as a national holiday. The first Labor Day was held in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was conceived of as a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold [1].” The event was marked by parades and picnics. A general air of solidarity between workers and a celebration of their right to organize and advance their interests colored the first Labor Day.

In the 10 years that followed this first Labor Day, 23 states adopted the practice and observed the first Monday of every September as Labor Day. Finally, On June 28, 1894, President Glover Cleveland managed to pass S. 730, dubbing Labor Day a national holiday, to be regarded in the same manner, “as Christmas, the first day of January… and the fourth day of July [2].”

At the time, Washington was slow to get to work. So unsurprisingly, “After being introduced in August 1893, S. 730 sat for ten months without debate in the Senate. Once Senate leaders brought it to the floor, however, the bill quickly passed [2].” It passed, and Labor Day has become another three-day holiday weekend. However, one ought to gain a sense of pride in the heritage of the worker’s struggles that led up to and informed the first Labor Day. In other words, one ought to reflect on what Labor Day is “really about!”

Joe Biden, in Proclamation 10250, a speech delivered on Labor Day 2021, rightly points to the important role that unions played in the 20th century labor struggles. A struggle that included the right to celebrate Labor Day. Biden first refers to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. §§ 151-169). In short, the act was designed to, “encourage collective bargaining by protecting workers’ full freedom of association. The NLRA protects workplace democracy by providing employees at private-sector workplaces the fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation [3].” A spirit that has been lost in our times, given the recent news of Starbucks and Amazon engaging in what many regard to be union busting activities. The latter being, surprisingly, reported as such by Jeff Bezos’ own publication, The Washington Post.

Biden, almost predicting these events, laments this situation where, although not officially overturned, companies are able to act as if the NLRA had never been passed. In his speech, Biden gestures towards two possibilities for a renewal in protections for labor’s right in America to freely associate. Those would be the Protecting the Right to Organize Act  and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. These proposals, although still in progress, are landmarks in the struggle to reassert the power of labor in the early 21st century. Something reminiscent of its position just 100 years ago when Labor Day was first founded.

Of course, we’ve worked hard all year, and deserve to relax this weekend. But let’s not forget how it is that we got the ability to relax this fine weekend in the first place! Happy Labor Day!


[1] History of Labor Day from the U.S Department of Labor

[2] Historical Highlights: The First Labor Day

[3] National Labor Relations Act

Written by: Yanis Ait Kaci Azzou, Library Assistant 


By rcll

September 02, 2022

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