TTU professor explains origins, importance of Labor Day

A holiday we now associate with barbecues and pool parties dates back to 1882.
A holiday we now associate with barbecues and pool parties dates back to 1882.(KCBD)
Published: Sep. 6, 2021 at 10:33 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Labor Day has come to be known as the end of the summer season, a day for backyard barbecues and the last time of the year you can wear white. Matthew Pehl, visiting assistant professor of history at Texas Tech, says many people don’t understand why we celebrate this federal holiday.

He says Labor Day is rooted in the trade union movement, but union membership and their social prominence have dropped off since the 1980s. That may be why many don’t know the history, but the tradition all started in the 1800s.

“What they said in the 1880s with the 8-hour movement, is we want 8 hours to work, 8 hours to rest, and 8 hours for what we will. And this, a lot of people treat Labor Day now as 8 hours for what we will,” Pehl said.

The first Labor Day celebration was held in New York City in 1882 - a parade organized by the Central Labor Union of New York, but Pehl says you could call it a strike.

“Because these workers weren’t excused from work, they just said we’re not showing up today, and we’re going to go claim public space and make our voice known, and assert our rights to organize as workers,” Pehl said.

At the time, many people were working 12 hour days, with no child labor laws, wage or safety regulations. Similar celebrations took place every year, until it became a federal holiday in 1894. Since then, the labor movement secured the federal minimum wage, paid time off, and alongside the civil rights movement, outlawed discrimination by sex and race in the workplace.

“When we honor work and workers, you know we’re speaking to this democratic American tradition that all people matter and all work has dignity,” Pehl said.

Pehl says while the labor movement isn’t the social force it used to be, unions still organize workers and push for their rights. The most recent push from labor unions, the proposed $15 minimum wage. He says to keep an eye out for upcoming legislation.

“Who knows what the so-called reconciliation bill that the democrats are working on right now will be, but childcare is a big part of that and that has been a labor issue for over 100 years,” Pehl said.

Pehl says when you think about Labor Day, consider the history the United States hasn’t commemorated as a federal holiday. Only this year we recognized Juneteenth, the end of slavery as a federal holiday. There’s not a federal holiday to celebrate the women’s suffrage movement or Election Day. Pehl says the fact that Labor Day is held up as a federal holiday, it should remind us how significant the presence of workers has been throughout American history.

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