Have We Forgotten the Meaning of Labor Day?

At the height of the Industrial Revolution in America, the average worker was struggling through 12-hour workdays and barely making ends meet. Children as young as 5 years were working in factories and mills, and working conditions for all were questionable at best. It was a bleak period in history – one that saw no shortage of violence and unrest. But the trials that workers endured spurred a turning point for American laborers.

On September 5, 1882, New York City workers took to the street and marched from City Hall to Union Square, marking the first Labor Day parade in the United States. However, it wasn’t until 1894 – spurred by the violent aftermath of the Pullman railroad strike – that the President Grover Cleveland recognized the first Monday in September as a federal holiday to honor the achievements and contributions of our country’s workers.

The landscape of the American workforce has changed since the first Labor Day celebration 133 years ago. The holiday was a pointedly political one, fueled by a movement that has been declining for decades already. Trade unions were eager to promote the collective bargaining rights of the workingman – something that wasn’t always afforded. Today, less than 11 percent of workers are union members – half of the union density in the early 1980s.

It’s safe to say that modern celebrations of the holiday aren’t carried out with the exact same connotations as they once were. For most Americans, Labor Day is a long weekend signaling the end of summer – a last hoorah before kids are back in school. Some may also recognize it as the ‘unofficial’ end of hot dog season and the start of NFL and college football. And – in a somewhat ironic twist – Labor Day marks one of the biggest sale weekends of American retailers, who inevitably ask workers to work on the holiday (and for longer hours than usual).

But while the once politically charged Labor Day is not celebrated with the same kind of reverence as it was in its inception, it’s hard to imagine that the core sentiment behind the holiday has disappeared. If you ask the average American, it’s likely they’ll still agree: the workingman is and always will be the cornerstone of our nation. And it’s evident that – while unions are on the decline – the rights and satisfaction of workers are a priority for many employers.

Though this year’s Labor Day celebrations are behind us, perhaps it would benefit us to take a cue from Albert Einstein and remember and recognize the work our past and current workers have done for our business’s successes:

“A hundred times every day, I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

Has Labor Day inspired you to re-engage with your employees? Learn how to build a culture of engagement through purpose in this webinar with author Aaron Hurst.

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