Labor Day is a federal holiday that honors a class of U.S. citizens, just like many other national holidays. It is meant to honor the labor movement, which reformed our previously inhumane working environments, by marking a day of remembrance and rest. And yet, an increasing number of colleges and universities around the country – who are tasked with building future generations of working citizens – have decided to hold classes on Labor Day. By doing so, our schools are disregarding the history of the labor movement in the United States. As we think about the origin of Labor Day, we should consider how we pay our respects to those who paved the way for our current working society.
Over the years, the meaning of Labor Day has seemingly been lost or forgotten. This holiday was conceived in the late 19th century to honor the labor movement and officially became a federal holiday in 1894. To understand the origin of this holiday, we must reflect upon our past as Americans.
In the late 1800s, the average American had to work 12-hour days and seven-day weeks just to make a basic living wage. Such grueling schedules were also inflicted upon children as young as five or six years old, depending on restrictions in some states. And workers of all ages had to deal with unsafe working conditions lacking fresh air, sanitary facilities, and breaks.
To address those horrible conditions, workers began banding together to create labor unions, vocalizing their concerns about both the demands imposed on them and the conditions under which they worked. Protests and rallies increased in frequency, coming to a head with a march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City on September 5, 1882. Ten thousand workers took unpaid time off to participate in the protest.
Given that history, it seems disrespectful for any private or public institution of higher learning to hold classes on Labor Day. College can be just as intense and demanding as a fulltime job. With the amount of class time, homework, assignments, and study time required of them, students work extremely hard throughout the school year. By holding classes on Labor Day, universities force students to spend the holiday working, away from their families, and to disregard what it was meant to honor. Teachers are also adversely affected by institutions holding classes on Labor Day. They are compelled to work on a day designed to honor workers with time off. Undergraduate and graduate institutions which hold classes on Labor Day act disrespectfully by obligating their students and faculty to work when they should be reflecting on the important history of the American labor movement, and the holiday designed to honor that movement’s enormous accomplishments for the citizenry.