Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894, thanks to President Grover Cleveland. At its core, the day is meant to celebrate the common worker.
But hear Labor Day and what comes to mind? Grilled hot dogs, the end of summer? Maybe back-to-school sales?
“Labor Day should be a moment when we all reflect the critical contributions of working people to the political, economic and cultural development of this country,” said Claudrena Harold, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
Three moments in labor history, in particular, are central to U.S. history, the modern labor movement, and today’s workplace, according to history and labor scholars.
“As we face challenges of growing levels of wage and income inequality, hazardous working conditions in the midst of COVID, there are lessons we can learn from the past,” Harold told NPR.
1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
The early 1900s were a period of massive industrialization, where factory work became a common job often done by young immigrant workers, especially women.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York became the site of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history. The tragedy that occurred there on March 25, 1911, marked a major turning point in labor history and helped establish modern-day workplace safety standards.
The factory took up the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Manhattan where employees toiled away for 12 hours a day for low pay.
Years before the fire, garment workers across the city went on strike to improve workplace conditions and wages. While many factories reached a union agreement with workers to improve conditions, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory did not.
On March 25, as the workday was ending, a fire broke out on the 8th floor. With buckets of spare fabric and shirts hanging from the ceiling, the flames quickly spread to the upper floors, trapping workers desperate to get out.
But doors to the stairwells were locked, a common practice at the time so bosses could prevent unauthorized breaks and alleged theft. The foreman with the keys to unlock the doors managed to escape, leaving hundreds of others behind.
The workers either succumbed to the smoke and flames or leapt from the building’s high windows down to the streets below. That day, 146 garment workers, 123 women and girls and 23 men died. Most of the victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrants.
The horror of the fire led to legislation meant to improve factory safety standards in New York. It also helped establish a watchdog agency with powers to investigate labor conditions. Frances Perkins, who later served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, would lead this agency.
“We are in many ways the beneficiary of this struggle,” Harold said of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “In this moment of the COVID pandemic, when so many of the conversations right now center on wages and working conditions and safety, the Triangle Waist fire and the political struggles that came after it, is an extremely relevant moment to remember now.”
1935: The U.S. passes the “Magna Carta” of labor law
“In the 1930s, what we see is finally a settlement of what many labor historians call the labor question: How can our country balance the need for corporations with labor democracy?” said Lane Windham, a professor at Georgetown University.
It’s during this decade the country suffers from the Great Depression. Workers start to look to unions and workplace protections to improve their station, Windham said. The decade proved monumental for worker rights.
In 1935, Sen. Robert F. Wagner of New York began drafting what would become the National Labor Relations Act.
It’s known as “the Magna Carta of labor,” Harold said.
It grants the right for workers to organize. The NLRA also establishes the National Labor Relations Board with enforcement powers to protect the right to organize and certified employee unions. The law bans unfair labor practice such as blacklisting, strike-breaking and discriminatory firings.
About a year after Roosevelt signed the law, working-class organization in generally took off, especially among Black, white, Native American, and female workers in the South, Harold said. By the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers belonged to unions.
Decades later, the law was amended to include more workers in professional sports and nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes. Crucially though, farmworkers and domestic workers — in jobs often done by Black and Latino workers — are still left out of the NLRA and are not allowed to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining.
Today, unions are still trying to expand national labor law with the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — the labor movement’s single biggest legislative priority in this Congress.
1981: Reagan fires striking air traffic controllers
Well into the 1970s, employers seemed to largely respect the NLRA, said Ileen DeVault, a labor history professor at Cornell University.
“At the time, it was pretty unheard of to fire strikers and bring on strikebreakers instead,” she said.
That is until the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) strike of 1981.
Forty years ago, on Aug. 3, nearly 13,000 air-traffic controllers walked off the job after negotiations with the federal government over pay and work hours proved fruitless.
President Ronald Reagan, a former labor union president himself, called the strike illegal and threatened to fire any worker who didn’t return to work within 48 hours.
Reagan carried out his threat two days later, when he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who hadn’t returned to work. He also declared a lifetime ban on rehiring the strikers by the Federal Aviation Administration.
DeVault says this was one of the most devastating blows to organized labor.
“Once the president of the United States made this move toward his workers, private-sector employers began following in his footsteps,” she said. Workers began to fear striking or unionizing out of concern for their jobs.
Decades later, 10.8% of U.S. workers belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about half what it was in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.