As with other federal holidays like Memorial Day or Independence Day, there’s a story behind why we dedicate a day to celebrate laborers. We talked with a local history professor to learn more.
It all started in the 1800’s. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and workers were fighting for better wages and working conditions among other basic rights.
“Workers have no bargaining powers with their employers as individuals, it’s only when you come together, collectively, that you have any chance of getting them to recognize, maybe, when there are inequities that need to be dealt with,” says Bethany Andreasen, Minot State History Professor.
Labor Unions were formed with this idea in mind to give workers that power. By the late 19th century, people wanted to recognize the laborers for their efforts.
“They were looking for a day to honor labor and that had started already in Europe and the decision was made that this was something that they thought was worthwhile to do in the United States as well,” says Andreasen.
By 1884 the holiday was set to the celebrated the first Monday of September, the way we recognize it today.
“I think if you’re truly going to have a fair economic system, the way that it operates, you need to have a strong enough voice coming from labor,” says Andreasen.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, just under 11% of working Americans are in a union as of 2017. In most Midwestern states, like North Dakota, the average is below 10%.
“I didn’t come from a union family, neither my father or mother were in the union, so it was kind of holiday, it was another day off when you’re in high school for the most part,” says Randy Bartsch, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 714 Business Manager.
He chose to join the IBEW after they visited his trade school because they offered not only benefits, but regular training opportunities for the employees.
“It also provides for safer workplaces, that’s one of the main things we advocate for, is a safe workplace. Everybody can go home at night the way they went to work,” says Bartsch.
And after joining a union, Labor Day has taken on a new meaning.
“Like other holidays that we use, largely, for recreation, if we could stop and spend a little time thinking about why they were set up in the first place, I think that would be good,” says Andreason.
Although it had been celebrated for more than a year prior, Labor Day wasn’t officially declared a federal holiday until 1894.