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The first “Labor Day” is thought to have been 135 years ago, on September 5, 1882 (United States Census Bureau). New Yorkers celebrated the day with a parade and since then, but of course has since passed into legislation as a national holiday. Originally called the “workingman’s holiday,” it is now an important part of the year by providing a transition between summer and fall, a much-needed break for hardworking Americans, and an opportunity to remember the history of the labor movement in America. Even today, the discussion of labor unions, raising the minimum wage, and lifting the quality of life standards for workers in service and food industries remains incredibly relevant.

Labor Day History

Labor Day emerged while the Industrial Revolution around the turn of the 20th century was in full effect, a period where the U.S. became the leading industrial nation ( Many of us remember reading Dickens at some point in our lives— the conditions for the working class and the poor he describes during the height of the Industrial Revolution are horrific. Issues during this period related to labor were widespread: child labor, extremely low wages (the minimum wage did not become law until 1938), exploitative employers, and a surge of workers into the urban landscape contributed to overcrowding, leading to highly unsanitary conditions, often resulting in illness. Though not as simple as cause and effect, the changing workers’ landscape and the drive of capitalism made the creation of labor unions necessary.

Child Labor: Breaker Boys, Pittston, PA, USA, 1911

Child Labor: Breaker Boys, Pittston, PA, USA, 1911. (Photo by Lewis W. Hine via Wikimedia)

The Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions first assembled in 1881, changing its name to the American Federation of Labor in 1888. Congress finally formed the Department of Labor in response to pressure put on by labor groups and the new demands of the industrial economy in 1913. Later, minimum wagechild labor laws, and the concept of overtime (40 hours a week defined as the maximum for a work week) were all part of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938. Labor unions became less powerful after World War II but it is still a relevant topic to today’s politics, especially to those earning a minimum wage of $7.25 in some states.

Recently, the governor of Illinois vetoed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022. Other states and cities have also considered raising the minimum wage, for example, Seattle has already enacted legislation and the $15 minimum wage is being phased in as of April 2015. Other areas that have passed legislation on raising the minimum wage include New York and Massachusetts. #Fightfor15 has become the rallying cry of those that feel the current minimum wage as it stands is not a living wage, or the amount necessary for a worker to meet his or her basic needs. On the other side, economists and policymakers argue that raising the wage would not be beneficial to employees in the long-run as employers would have to let workers go in order to balance the rise in costs for higher pay.

HEB & Labor

We will be able to see how the minimum wage debate plays out over time; economists are already producing studies and reports on the effects of the wage increase in Seattle. But this Labor Day weekend, we can celebrate even having a minimum wage as a result of the labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here at Humanities E-Book, we consider the humanities a crucial tool in informing both laborers and employers. HEB hosts quite a few titles on the history of labor, the labor movement and labor unions, as well as many other topical titles across the humanities. Learning from the history of labor in America and looking ahead to its future, celebrate the achievements of the labor movement and enjoy the much deserved time off.  Have a happy and safe Labor Day!

Below are a few examples of titles on Labor in the HEB collection, please email HEB if you would like an expanded title list.