10 Ways to Honor the Real Spirit of Labor Day

Remember those who brought you 40 hour work weeks, lunch breaks, paid time off, sick days, child labor laws and more.

by Leila Ettachfini
Aug 31 2018, 9:16pm

Image by Molly Adams via Wikimedia Commons

Those of us lucky enough to get Labor Day off are justifiably excited about the holiday weekend: It’s a rare three-day break in the nonstop hell that is capitalism, millions of us will be going on vacation, and it marks the unofficial end of summer (exciting for those of us who hate humidity, sweat, and not being able to comfortably wear a hoodie).

Given our natural preoccupations with wine coolers, sunburns, and hot dogs, it’s easy to forget that the holiday exists not only to provide us a farewell bender to summer, but to honor the labor movement. Since I'm sure you've all got the barbecuing covered, let's focus on the latter today.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be indulgent this weekend. Labor Day was birthed in the 1880s out of a march/celebration organized by the Central Labor Union (though it did not become a federal holiday until 1894) with the very intention of giving laborers a well-deserved break. However, in doing so, we can take a few moments to honor the work of labor activists from our past and present who’ve earned us the right to a weekend, eight-hour work days, lunch breaks, paid time off, sick days, child labor laws, and more—as well as those struggling today under exploitative or harmful working conditions.

With that in mind, here are some things to do and/or be grateful for this weekend as you enjoy your three days off.

  1. Remember that not everyone is able to spend Labor Day off of work. As you’re picking up ice from the store or making a drive-thru run, be a little kinder to those who have to work as you enjoy the day off. While kindness is appreciated, it doesn’t pay the bills. If you can afford a beach day or vacation, you can afford to tip. Do so generously, and not just at sit-down restaurants. Take this sentiment beyond Labor Day by advocating for a higher minimum wage so workers don't have to rely on fluctuating tips to make a living wage.
  2. Leave your favorite novel at home, and instead pick up cute beach reads like There is Power in a Union, Race on the Line, Nickel and Dimed, or Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History. Each of these books tells a fascinating story of labor in America and sheds light on the power and importance of workers' rights.
  3. If you prefer reading articles, try finding pieces about the labor movement that speak to you. I suggest “The Triangle Shirtwaist Memorialist” which brings the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the present day; “Breaking the Gender Barrier: A Woman’s Place is in Her Union," which takes a look at the intersection of feminism and the labor movement; and “#MeToo Is Creating a 'Ripple Effect' for Domestic and Farm Workers,” which examines how the current cultural movement shedding light on sexual assault in the workplace affects women in low-wage industries.
  4. If your workplace is unionized, send a thank-you note and/or gift to your coworkers that made it happen and your union representative. Capitalism does not make it easy to unionize; they worked hard for your benefits. You can also go beyond thanking them and ask how you can help make their job easier—as they did for you—whether that's getting your coworkers to attend union meetings or volunteering to help with contract negotiations.
  5. If your workplace isn’t unionized, read about the steps it takes to get there and educate yourself and your coworkers about what unionizing your workplace could mean for you and other employees. Then decide if you want to begin the process. (Note: You may want to do this in a private manner, like reaching out to your coworkers via your personal email and discussing unionizing during after-work get togethers. While you have the right to unionize, a company can site other reasons for letting you go.)
  6. Take it upon yourself to learn about the numerous events and tragedies that birthed labor movements and the rights of workers of specific identities, like Atlanta's washerwomen strike, which raised wages for Black laundresses; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which killed 146 workers who were mostly young immigrant women and girls and led to major workers reforms nationwide, and the 2017 Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College case in which the court ruled that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of the Civil Rights Act.
  7. Donate to or visit memorials for victims of workplace tragedies.
  8. Support workers’ rights movements across the country, whether that means canvassing for elected officials who support sex workers and wage raises for public school teachers, or advocating for labor causes that mean the most to you in other ways. (You can donate to the National Education Association here and the Sex Workers Project here.)
  9. Stand up for yourself at work. After reflecting on this Labor Day, let the labor activists who’ve come before you give you the courage to finally ask for that raise, inquire about gender pay gaps at your company, raise concerns about your hours, or whatever it is that’s been on your mind.
  10. Happy Labor Day! I leave you with some slogans to remember: