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The True Meaning of Labor Day in the US

Contributor: Chris Williams, CAE, Executive Director, VPPPA

To many, Labor Day marks the ceremonial end to summer and one final opportunity to gather with friends and family, fire up the barbecue and, in many parts of the country, enjoy the last vestiges of warm weather before fall and winter set in.

Sadly, very few Americans understand the reason behind the holiday.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the origins of Labor Day date back to the mid-1800s, when, as they state, “before it was a federal holiday, Labor Day was recognized by labor activists and individual states.” In 1885, the first municipal ordinance was passed to acknowledge Labor Day as a celebratory event—Oregon became the pioneer state to enact a law recognizing Labor Day on February 21, 1887. By 1894, 31 states had established laws to honor Labor Day, and on June 28, 1894, Congress officially designated the first Monday in September of each year as a legal holiday.

But why do we celebrate? In simple terms, we commemorate Labor Day to honor the invaluable contributions of the American worker to our nation’s prosperity and success. As Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1882, eloquently put it, Labor Day is a “general holiday for the laboring classes” meant to pay tribute to those “who, from rude nature, have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

To me, Labor Day represents not only a celebration of the American worker but also a recognition of the remarkable progress we’ve achieved in safeguarding our workforce over the past century. We’ve come a long way from the old and, quite frankly, frightening mindset of “injuries and deaths are a part of industry” to where we are now—a relentless pursuit of eliminating the hazards and behaviors that can lead to unsafe work. We owe much of this progress to the Department of Labor and OSHA, as well as labor and trade organizations working together to develop the processes—and relationships—needed to recognize that workplace safety is a shared responsibility (and core value).

Programs like OSHA’s VPP, along with organizations like VPPPA, have facilitated these relationships and brought labor, management, and the regulatory components together to focus on advancing health and safety excellence in the workplace. Together, as a united front, we’ve embraced that responsibility and—more importantly—helped bring others into our programs as part of our mission to protect every worker, on every jobsite.

But the biggest contributor to our EHS&S (Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability) evolution over the last 100 years has been, and will continue to be, the front-line worker. These individuals, present daily on production floors, construction sites, retail warehouses, and stores, possess a depth of experience and understanding that surpasses our own. They understand, better than anyone else, the vital importance of working safely, of speaking up to protect others from potential hazards, and of championing workplace safety.

They are the ones who directly benefit from our commitment to continuous improvement toward safety excellence, and they are also the ones who suffer the consequences when we aren’t. They’re the ones who, as we see with our VPPPA members and, especially on VPP sites around the country, drive safety innovation based on real-world experiences.

So, as we come together, whether at the pool, around the grill, or on the beach, on this first Monday of September, surrounded by those dearest to us as we bid a fond farewell to summer, remember why we’re together—because each of us contributed to making this day what it is: A day to celebrate the contributions and continued health and wellbeing of the American worker. And to that, we say thank you.