Labor Day Past & Present

Updated August 2019

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.

bigstock-welding-300For the basics, turn to with its 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.

For a government overview of Labor Day page, read the Department of Labor history of the holiday. Find current labor union statistics at the Census Bureau Facts for Features article (as of August 6, 2019, last updated in 2017).

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 the National Child Labor Committee. hosts several brief videos as well as photos on Labor Day and the history of labor unions in the US. The site now uses pop-up video ads.

Edsitement, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, offers a detailed unit 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.

The Library of Congress provides a collection of labor themed resources for teachers, including a couple of lesson plans for grades 6-12. But the real treasure lies in the LOC’s Exhibitions and Presentations section. Students can view video clips of quite a few turn-of-the-century people at work, from ice manufacturers to Maine loggers.  Students who want to learn about women in the labor movement can start here. The LOC text is better suited for older middle graders.

The Smithsonian collection includes Biographical Spotlights on three American labor leaders stretching across the 19th and 20th centuries:  Frances Perkins, Samuel Gompers, and Cesar Chavez. Elsewhere at the museum’s site, Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways are ready for listening online. Hear ‘Joe Hill,’ ‘Bread and Roses,’ and over 20 more well-known protest songs, including a song about carpal tunnel syndrome, a more recently identified labor issue.

Labor Today

female-construction-196x3001Organized 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.

As industrial union membership has dropped, membership among government workers has remained strong. Recent 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.

In May 2014, the US Supreme Court in Harris vs. Quinn ruled that government employees in organizations represented by unions such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – in this case Illinois home-care workers, with lead plaintiff, Pam Harris – “cannot be forced to pay dues to a union if they’re not union members because they are not full-fledged public employees like cops, firefighters, and teachers.” Mother Jones goes on to report on the ruling from its usual pro-labor stance. Similar conclusions are reached by the less kid-friendly SCOTUSblog response to the ruling.

In June 2018 the US Supreme Court ruled non-union individuals working in unionized public sector agencies did not have to pay union fees. The case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was brought by a person working in child support services for an Illinois agency. The ruling reversed a 1977 case which had said non-union employees would pay union bargaining costs but not political costs. For details visit Adam Liptak’s New York Times article.

CBS This Morning
Following months of wildcat strikes (Corey Doctorow, BoingBoing) by teachers in several states, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz reported on possible effects of the Janus decision on teachers’ unions.

For a long list of strikes, from 1619 to 2019 in the US and elsewhere, visit Wikipedia. Students who want to look beyond the labor movement in America can visit the Encyclopedia Britannica’s collection of resources to follow the interplay of union growth in the US and Europe.

US labor unions and organizations provide websites linking to their own education resources and to other resources. The NEA includes history, like a Triangle Fire link complete with a floor plan of the room that trapped workers. Share My Lesson, affiliated with the AFT, offers Labor Day lessons, some of which are for middle graders. Along with its labor history timeline arranged by theme, the AFL-CIO includes links to many labor education resources.

2nd photo: Seattle Municipal Archives, Creative Commons

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

1 Response

  1. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Excellent resources. Thanks, Susan!

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