As with many American holidays, the origins and significance of Labor Day are frequently lost in a sea of other associations. Labor Day is the recognized transition from summer to fall. It signifies back to school, and a getting-down-to-serious-business again at work. In more formal days, it meant switching out light-colored summer wardrobes for the darker hues of fall. And of course, as with all great American holidays, it is an opportunity to feast—in this case, often a barbecue to rejoice in the last gasp of summer.
But Labor Day, as the name implies, has a more serious purpose. It is really meant to celebrate workers. While its origins are in some dispute, we know that it grew out of the labor movement during the nineteenth century, and in 1894 it became a national holiday, a “yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” as the Department of Labor puts it.
These origins are important, because the American worker remains someone to celebrate and recognize. We’re talking specifically about the over fifty million Americans who are frontline workers: the retail clerks, the drivers, the housekeeping staff, the sanitation workers, the caregivers and so many more. Together, they comprise about a third of all working people in the U.S. And they are a wildly diverse group, their demographics painting a vivid picture of our country:
- 33 percent are under age 35
- 33 percent are immigrants
- over half are Black or Hispanic
- 44 percent are women
In fact, in many industries the percentages of women, immigrants, and people of color are much higher still.
Yet, while frontline workers may be an unusually diverse group, they have many things in common with the generally more homogeneous white-collar world. After all, people in every kind of work have loved ones they care for and about, volunteer in their communities, have active lives outside of work. And people in every kind of work want to earn a decent wage, ideally in a job that is satisfying and fulfilling.
Frontline workers are everywhere, making a tremendous difference in our lives. They are cleaning our streets, delivering our mail, selling us a morning coffee, making and packaging the goods we buy, and building our homes. As the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, we couldn’t live without them. Frontline workers deserve all our support and our gratitude, not just on Labor Day, but year-round. Even more importantly, they deserve workplace policies and practices that give them the opportunity to grow and to thrive, both at home and at work.