Marking the end of the summer season, Labor Day has become known over the years as the day for last minute road trips, beach excursions and relaxation.
However, Labor Day’s origin is rooted in the history of the workers’ rights movement in America and is meant to signify reverence and observance of the working class.
According to Matthew Mendez Garcia, professor of political science, Labor Day is much more than just a day off from work.
“Labor Day is significant because it highlights the struggle of U.S. workers to obtain basic rights in the workplace and the role of unions in securing those rights,” Mendez Garcia said. “Labor history is filled with violent episodes and repression, but this holiday offers us a chance to reflect on the sacrifices made to secure workers’ rights and the benefits our society has received from them.”
The observance was first celebrated in 1882 when the state of New York established its first workers union, the Central Labor Union, and President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1884.
Since its inauguration, Labor Day has grown to include all industries, and its importance has grown among farm workers and labor unions. Notably, Cesar Chavez created the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers union, in 1962.
At a time of civil unrest and racial reckoning, Chavez led farm workers in non-violent demonstrations to demand better wages, working conditions and the right to unionize.
“Labor Day is significant for communities of color because economic justice is still denied to many people of color and immigrants,” Mendez Garcia said. “Immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, have turned to unions to advocate for workers’ rights for hotel workers, farm workers, domestic workers and day laborers. The work of unions is not finished, and these groups build on that legacy.”
Amid a time of societal unrest stemming from distrimination against communities of color, faculty and staff at Long Beach State are participating in a nationwide virtual strike Sept. 8 and Sept. 9. All previously planned course materials are to be paused, and instead, discussions on racism, police brutality and equality will be facilitated by leaders in the community.
The significance of the strike beginning the day after Labor Day has more to do with than just the observance of union contracts, according to Kimberly Walters, professor of international studies.
“[We] chose the two days following Labor Day to underscore the need for labor organizers across the country, including those in higher education, to make changes in the Labor Rights Movement to better accord with the principles and demands of the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Walters said.
Mendez Garcia said that today, Labor Day is more important than ever.
“Labor Day in 2020 is a critical time for workers, people of color and the people of the United States,” he said. “Our country is facing rising income inequality, an economic crisis and an uncertain labor market. Labor Day is a time to reflect on what economic justice looks like and how that is compatible with racial justice.”