This photograph, probably from a 1909 labor parade in NYC, shows two children wearing sashes that say “Abolish Child Slavery!!” in English and Yiddish. It wasn’t until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act passed that child labor laws were put into effect at the national level permanently, though to this day such protections don’t extend to many of the 500,000 children working in the agricultural industry in the US. Photo credit: Bain News Service / Library of Congress

If you’re a US worker who has ever taken advantage of work-free weekends, lunch breaks, paid vacation, sick leave, social security benefits, minimum wage, overtime pay, or a 40-hour work week, you can thank the American labor movement. We often forget that Labor Day was designated as a federal holiday in order to celebrate the achievements of this movement, but fair and safe working conditions have not always been a given. They were hard-won by common people who fought and even lost their lives for the cause.

Labor Day was designated as a federal holiday in order to celebrate the achievements of the American labor movement, but fair and safe working conditions have not always been a given.

The images below show the parades, strikes, and tragedies that ultimately made way for improved working conditions in the US, yet by no means is the fight for fair labor laws over. Many minimum wage workers across the US require government assistance to keep their families afloat. A recent lawsuit against Uber has raised the issue of whether companies that run on the “gig economy” should be able to categorize their workers as “independent contractors” — a designation that passes the cost of health insurance, social security, and other expenses on to the worker. And if you thought child labor was a thing of the past here in America, think again: Many US child labor laws don’t apply to hundreds of thousands of children working in the agricultural industry in the US today.


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The above images depict just a few of the battles eventually won by labor movements nationwide. If you work in the US, you have likely taken advantage of a plethora of rights and laws fought for by the American labor movement, including:

•  Work-free weekends

•  Lunch breaks

•  Paid vacation

•  Sick leave

•  Social Security

•  Minimum wage

•  Civil Rights Act/Title VII (prohibiting employer discrimination)

•  Eight-hour work day

•  Overtime pay

•  Child labor laws

•  Workers’ compensation

•  Unemployment insurance

•  Workplace safety

•  Collective bargaining rights

•  And more

Related front page panorama photo credit: Seamstress (Moses Soyer / Smithsonian American Art Museum), Mine Rescue (Fletcher Martin  / Smithsonian American Art Museum), Artwork Days without End (Frank Cassara / Smithsonian American Art Museum)


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6 years ago

I guess I would have to ask those folks under the age of 50 let’s say if they know why we celebrate labor Day? Do they know that literally thousands of workers died fighting for the laws and rights they enjoy today? Do they know that it was through Unions that most of these benefits to workers came about? Do they understand why Bernie Sanders “Populist Socialism” seems to be catching on in our age of corporate oversight? I wonder.

6 years ago
Reply to  scott

Yes, I did know all of that. I would be willing to say most college educated Adults under 50 have at least some knowledge of the labor movement in this country.

Lack of knowledge about the Labor movement is the Education problem not a generational one.

4 years ago


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