Labor Day: Looking back at the unions that changed American history

Black-and-white photo of chidlren and adults marching down American street in parade

The 1963 Labor Day Parade in New York City. Photo by US Embassy Panama, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7: Barbecues, parades and patriotic colors mark a holiday steeped in American history: Labor Day is the result of the long struggle for recognition by the American labor movement. Beyond recognizing the social and economic achievements of American workers, Labor Day makes us aware of the countless workers who have, together, contributed to the strength and prosperity of their country. In return for their contributions, the unions that made Labor Day renowned pledge to protect American workers and give a collective voice to those who might otherwise have none. The first Labor Day celebration, in 1882 in New York City, attracted more than 10,000 workers who marched through the streets.

Labor & Faith: The value of human labor is echoed throughout the Bible and the Quran. Biblical passages ask God to “prosper the work of our hands” (Psalm 90), while the Quran refers to the morality of conducting oneself in the public square. The late Pope John Paul II frequently talked about the sacred nature of human labor.

In the late 1800s, leaders in the Knights of Labor worked to spread awareness of Labor Day; the influence of religion was undeniable. Wrote Knights of Labor Leader Terence Vincent Powderly, “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.” The Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”–for the spiritual and educational facets of the labor movement. (Read quotes about labor and religion here.)


Black-and-white cartoon of two men and crowd of men behind them pulling heavy item and pushing toward brick wall

A Labor Day cartoon. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the 19th century, many Americans had to work 12-hour days every day of the week to make a living. Child labor was at its height in mills, factories and mines, and young children earned only a portion of an adult’s wage. Dirty air, unsafe working conditions and low wages made labor in many cities a dangerous occupation. (Learn more from Time and the U.S. Department of Labor.) As working conditions worsened, workers came together and began forming labor unions: through unions, workers could have a voice by participating in strikes and rallies. Some events turned violent—such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886—but for the majority of American workers, labor unions transformed lives. (Wikipedia has details.) Through unions, Americans fought against child labor and for the eight-hour workday.

Historians disagree as to who founded Labor Day: Some believe that it was Peter McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, while others attest that it was machinist Matthew Maguire. Nonetheless, the first Labor Day public celebration was launched on September 5, 1882, in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. As awareness spread, Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday, in 1887, and by 1896, Labor Day was a national holiday.


Experts estimate that union membership has now decreased to less than one in eight, though numbers are still strong in specific fields, such as education. Unfortunately, many retail stores today work their employees extra hours on Labor Day, to push Labor Day sales. That means a lot—considering that more Americans work in the retail industry than any other.

In New York City: Today, there is still a major parade in New York City on Labor Day, as well as in other cities across the country.

Unions on Twitter: Posts and photos about unions today can be found at #UnionStrong.

Holiday Weekend Travel: Surveys reveal that 41 percent of Americans plan to travel for Labor Day weekend this year—up 11 percent from last year. Of those surveyed, 68 percent plan to drive and 27 percent intend to fly.

Cookout Recipes: Hosting or attending a cookout or barbecue for Labor Day? Try a recipe from Food Network.

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Labor Day: How much do you know about faith and work? Try this quiz!

David Briggs quiz on Faith and Work for Labor Day

HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW about faith in the workplace? Click this image to visit the Association of Religion Data Archives website and take religion writer David Briggs’ online quiz.

“If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women.”
Terence Vincent Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor outreach

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: Amid parades, festivities and traveling this Labor Day weekend, consider giving this holiday the merit it really deserves: a look at the history and relevance of labor in the lives of American workers.

Labor Day honors a value that has been a part of religious reflection for thousands of years—the value of human labor. Psalm 90 in the Bible ends with a prayer that God will “prosper the work of our hands.” In Islam, the Quran talks at length about the nature of our work and the morality of conducting ourselves in the public square. For two centuries, popes have written extensively about the sacred nature of labor.

At ReadTheSpirit, we were pleased to see that our colleague religion writer David Briggs published an entire Labor Day quiz, based on recent research into the connections between faith and labor. As David reports, “Faith matters in the lives of working Americans. It matters in their choice of a vocation: Other than marriage, the choice of a job or career is the next major life decision most likely to be influenced by faith, a study by Brandeis University researchers found.”

TRY DAVID BRIGGS’ QUIZ … Click on the image with this column—or just click here—and you’ll jump to his interactive quiz.


Black-and-white photo of people on streets in early 20th century, leisurely gatherings and walking in a built-up downtown

A Labour Day parade in Toronto, Canada, 1900. Labour Day was made an official holiday by Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson in July of 1894; less than one month later, Labor Day became a federal holiday in the United States. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Why do we refer to “American Labor Day” in this column? Because American leaders in the late 1800s feared that a May holiday, which was favored by labor activists, would encourage memories of the tragic Haymarket conflict in Chicago. What began as a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square wound up in headlines around the world after a bomb went off, police opened fire and many were killed or wounded. The tragedy continued through subsequent court cases. That May event in Haymarket Square well over a century ago is remembered, to this day, in May 1 labor holidays around the world.

Instead of a May holiday, then, American leaders preferred to remove “our” holiday from that tragedy by four months in our civic calendar. Instead, American holiday planners encouraged street parades and public displays of the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations in each community community—including cheerful festivities and recreation for workers and their families. (Wikipedia has details.)

In addition, the Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”—dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

In the late 1800s, leaders in the Knights of Labor worked diligently to spread awareness of this holiday. Terence Vincent Powderly, leader of the Knights’ outreach, wrote on the influence of religion, “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.” Powderly’s preamble to the union’s Declaration of Principles quoted Scripture, and the leader himself was a devout Catholic. (The Huffington Post published an article on this subject.)


President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” launched a series of programs intended to restore the nation’s promise of equality and opportunity—and, on Aug. 20, 1964, President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act. Part of this Act established the Job Corps, a residential education and training program for disadvantaged young people, and centers across the country are marking 50 years with open houses, demonstrations and more. Though the official anniversary was Aug. 20, take some time today to learn more about this fundamental part of labor history in America. (Learn more from the U.S. Department of Labor.)

Here’s an irony: Labor Day has become an important sale weekend for many retailers. More Americans work in the retail industry than any other, resulting in longer hours for the day that was intended to provide leisure for the country’s workers.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: National Observances

Labor Day: New year for schools & NFL has a long union history

Samuel Gompers Labor Memorial in Washington DC.

Samuel Gompers Labor Memorial in Washington DC.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 2: From coast to coast, you can smell the barbecue and, in some communities, you’ll still see fireworks after sunset! Americans celebrate Labor Day as one last blast of summer—before the start of a new school year, more intensified fall-and-winter schedules in many companies and, of course, the return of the NFL and college football!

But the holiday has a long and hard-won history in the U.S. labor movement.

Wikipedia has an in-depth overview with links to read more about the early roots of Labor Day in the late 1800s. The phrase “hard-won” is accurate because federal officials didn’t enact the holiday until after deaths in the Pullman railway strike of 1894. In response to nationwide concern about the use of violence against workers in the Pullman strike, Congress moved rapidly to enact a holiday honoring workers. However, political leaders wanted to avoid the movement toward an International Workers Day in early May to remember deaths in the Chicago Haymarket Square bombing in 1886. Some American unions also backed the later date for an American holiday—and “the first Monday of September” is now a fixture in American life every year.


This news may surprise you! Two years ago, in 2011, Pew researchers issued a startling report headlined “Unions Face Uncertain Future.” Pew polls found American attitudes toward organized labor at a low point. But, this summer? Pew reports a different story, headlined Favorable Views of Business, Labor Rebound. The new report says, in part:

“Favorable opinions of both business corporations and labor unions have rebounded from record lows reached in the summer of 2011. Overall, more Americans now hold a favorable (55%) than an unfavorable (39%) view of business corporations; two years ago, opinion was reversed (52% unfavorable, 38% favorable). Similarly, views of labor unions have returned to positive territory, with 51% holding a favorable view and 42% holding an unfavorable view – far better ratings than the 46% unfavorable/41% favorable balance of opinion registered in 2011.”


Pro labor comic book Cliff Merritt and the very candid candidateThis year, stories about the influence of comic books are back in newspaper and TV news, mainly because of U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s creation of a graphic novel, ‘March,’ to teach a new generation about the civil rights movement.

Thanks to comic artist and historian Tom Christopher, we’ve also got a fascinating online history of comic books used in the American labor movement. In Tom’s historical overview (which includes some screen shots of these collectible classics), he demonstrates that companies, unions and even some bigoted groups distributed comic books in the campaign to sway American attitudes toward organized labor.

In our view at Read The Spirit, one of the best sections of Tom’s history concerns the old “Cliff Merritt” comics, which still show up in shops and websites that sell classic comic books. Cliff Merritt was drawn and presented as a good, solid American guy, whom Tom describes as looking a lot like the actor Robert Young (starring in TV’s Father Knows Best at the time). Some top names in comic history worked on these indie projects.

So, as a unique Labor Day treat for our readers, this year—enjoy Tom Christopher’s story of an unknown chapter in our American labor history. Tom reminds us of an era when the labor movement made common sense in households nationwide. One issue in the pro-labor comic series was called Cliff Merritt Sets the Record Straight. In that issue, Tom writes: Cliff “is about to retire from the railroad, and he’s given a dinner which he uses as an occasion to make a quick speech about progress in economics and safety through union activity. Cliff lives with his son and his family and he learns that his grand daughter has had a tiff with her boyfriend over the legitimacy of union activities. He calls the youngsters together and gives them a slideshow detailing union history and demonstrating the need for a union to ensure workers’ rights and safety. The young lovers make up and head off to the malt shop for a soda.”

From all of us at ReadTheSpirit: Have a safe and happy Labor Day!


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