The Meaning Behind “Labor Day”

The Meaning Behind “Labor Day”



If you live in Michigan, Memorial Day signifies the unofficial beginning of summer, the 4th of July symbolizes the best of summer and Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer.  The tourists leave “up north” and the weather predictably cools down. Each year we celebrate Labor Day and we are thankful that we don’t have to go to work or school on the first Monday in September. Most people know the meaning of Memorial Day and what the 4th of July represents, but Labor Day?

We typically grill out and spend time at the beach on Labor Day, but today it was raining… so, we went out to eat at a local restaurant. During lunner (too late for lunch and too early to call it dinner), I asked my 4 girls (ages 8, 6,5 & 5), “Why do you think we have a national holiday called Labor Day?” My oldest said, “It means we go back to school.” Next up was the 6 year old, “It is the end of summer.” The twins kind of shrugged and said, “I dunno.” I suspect most people are equally clueless.  So, I thought I would enlighten you.

The History of Labor Day: For much of our nation’s history, there weren’t laws, standards or norms about how an employer could or should treat an employee (laborer).  For example, it was commonly expected that a laborer would work 6 or 7 days a week or work 10, 12, or 16 hour shifts and an employee would be at an employer’s mercy to determine the hourly or weekly wage.  In the mid 1800’s, employees started to ban together to form unions to fight for their rights.  They inherently understood that their work should be valued and protected. Over time, these unions helped to establish a minimum wage, over-time pay, a 5-day work week, child labor laws and worker safety laws. This fight wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always peaceful. Big business didn’t go quietly and politicians weren’t always supportive. To pay tribute to the Labor Movement, President Grover Cleveland (our 22nd and 24th president) signed a law establishing the first Monday of September as a tribute to the men and women who fought and still fight for the rights of the laborers in this country.

Joe’s Perspective: This struggle is not over. The pendulum swings in different directions. At one point in our nation’s history laborers had little rights and had to “take it or leave it.” At other times, worker unions might have had too much power. The pendulum is swinging back towards the employer and big business. This ultimately hurts the middle class and the lower class. There are currently many high paying jobs in this country, but most of those jobs require higher education or premium skills. This creates a feeling of the “haves” and the “havenots,” which leads to movements like the “99% vs. the 1%” that was prominent a few short years ago.  It can be seen today in proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10, $12 or even $16. It can be heard in President Obama’s language today, “level the playing field” and “share the wealth.”  It can be seen in other emerging countries like China, Korea and Indonesia where workers have few rights.

I do not have all the answers, but I do believe we need to keep assessing where we are as a country, which is why we have national holidays like Labor Day. Yes, it is a day off from school, but it should be a symbolize a little more. Shouldn’t it?

Your Turn: Please place your comments below, (2) like and share our Facebook page (character development & leadership) or (3) tweet to @CDandLeadership using #LaborDay)

1. Will this blog do anything to change your opinion about the purpose or meaning of Labor Day?

2. You tell me, what does this blog have to do with character and leadership?  I hope you get this one!



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  1. Labor Day is a day that people are free and get to relax for just one day. It’s basically the start of the new semester where we get back to working.

  2. I always knew that labor day had a deeper meaning than ” The day before school starts.” I guess i just wasn’t interested enough to dig a bit and research what it is all about. This article helped me to understand what Labor Day really is all about

  3. I wouldn’t change my opinion because, at the end it’s still history… it’s nothing we can really change. I do however like how we honor those who fought for the rights of laborers. This blog does include character and leadership, because there were people who stood up for what was right. Although it is only a day, it’s a good way to skip a day at work.