Labor Day Past & Present
Nowadays Labor Day offers last-minute summer vacations and family get-togethers for many. But why is it a federal holiday? Here we look into the history of Labor Day and the current challenges facing labor unions in the United States.
For the basics, turn to TimeandDate.com for an overview of the US Labor Day. If students want to know how the rest of the world celebrates labor, the site includes a link to its May Day content. At USA.gov’s Labor Day page, you’ll find links to the Department of Labor history of the holiday along with statistics for workers today. The history of labor unions is written for an older audience. In the kids’ section the Employment Quiz link is defunct, but students can look into career paths.
The folks at Education World offer a page full of Labor Day links. Two are particularly helpful for younger learners. Fact Monster from Pearson Education presents a kid-friendly overview of the struggle for labor rights. It is the only source included here that references union corruption, noting the Teamsters’ criminal activity in the second half of the 20th century. For lots of statistics covering decades, click ‘more Labor Day features’ at the bottom of the page. The History Place presents photographs of children at work around 1910. The photographs are by Lewis W. Hine who left teaching to become an investigative photographer working for National Child Labor Committee.
History.com hosts several brief videos (including a dramatization of a young girl who helped lead a walk-out) and photos on Labor Day and the history of labor unions in the US. The site’s article describing the development of the holiday is concise. Its articles on the rise and decline of unions and strikes, which are chronological through the 1980’s, make for more challenging reading. For a comparison of organized labor membership and strength in 1983 and 2011, turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Edsitement, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides a detailed unit for grades 6-8 on three major labor events: the Haymarket Affair, the Homestead Strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The unit concludes with an activity comparing attitudes toward modern sweat-shop labor in developing countries and US territories.
Organized labor has faced growing challenges in recent decades. Reasons cited for the decline vary. Students can read recent articles to discover current thinking about labor’s decline and its effect on American life. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson looks at the impact of technology in considering ‘Who Killed American Unions?’ Steven Greenhouse, writing for the New York Times, tracks labor’s decline and the increase in wage inequality. The two articles are moderate in tone and content. Commenters for both articles show the variety of strong opinions among readers.
As industrial union membership has dropped, membership among government workers has remained strong. The past two years have seen an effort to decrease the strength of public service unions by several states. Older students can look into both sides of the issues – union busting versus controlling state budgets – in this NYT Learning Network post. One activity places students in roles on both sides of the debate. The article also provides resources to look into the history of unions in the US and offers suggestions for reading fiction and nonfiction to immerse students in the working conditions and attitudes experienced by workers and employers. The comments following the post also offer a range of attitudes toward unions.
1st photo: BigStock image
2nd photo: Seattle Municipal Archives, Creative Commons