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Money Culture

Why We Celebrate Labor Day — And Why It’s the Perfect Time to Advance Your Career

It’s more than just the end of summer. Here are the surprising origins of Labor Day — and why it’s the perfect time to advance your career.

Susan Shain • September 2, 2021

For those of us lucky enough to have time off, Labor Day is a fun, long weekend — full of picnics and pools, destination weddings, and last-ditch camping trips.

But far fewer of us know the origins of the holiday that falls on the first Monday of each September. What, exactly, is Labor Day? Why do we celebrate it? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we use this annual summer farewell to our financial advantage? 

Keep reading for the answers to all your labor-ious questions… 

The history of Labor Day

In the late 1800s, American work life was far from pretty. As industry shifted from fields to factories, the average person worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, frequently in unsafe and unsanitary environments. That included children, too. 

To protest these conditions, U.S. labor unions began getting louder, holding strikes and rallies that often turned violent. In Canada, however, unions were illegal. So there, in 1872, workers demonstrated their solidarity with a group of striking Toronto printers by taking to the streets — a parade that became an annual event. 

A decade later, on September 5, 1882, 10,000 American workers followed suit, marching through New York City to draw attention to their rights and achievements. According to the New York Tribune, it was the “first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization,” and was followed by a party with speeches, food, cigars, and kegs. 

Over the next few years, more and more states adopted the newfound September tradition. But it wasn’t until 1894, when a railroad workers strike led to riots that killed more than a dozen, that Congress decided to appease the public by recognizing Labor Day as a national holiday. And it wasn’t until 1938 that the federal government actually set a minimum wage and maximum workweek, as well as limitations on child labor.

Why we celebrate Labor Day

To put it simply, Labor Day celebrates you. It celebrates us. It celebrates everyone who’s been a part of the industrious machine we call the United States. 

As the Department of Labor says, “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” 

We’ve come a long way since the 1800s — and though we still have a long way to go (cough, living wage, cough), the first Monday in September is a chance to give yourself a pat on the back for being an integral part of our country’s success and progress. 

5 ways to use Labor Day to your financial advantage

Whether or not you get the weekend off — we’re well aware that more than 40% of companies require at least some employees to work on Labor Day — why not pay tribute to the holiday’s original spirit this September? 

Here are five ways you could use Labor Day to your advantage and create a new tradition that allows you to fire up your finances (as well as your grill): 

  1. Perform a career audit: Instead of January 1, which is bogged down with other resolutions, make Labor Day your date for an annual career check-in. Think about where you’re at and where you’d like to go. Then make moves to get there, whether it’s signing up for additional training or polishing your resume. 
  2. Ask for a raise: As part of your career audit, and in a boss move that Labor Day’s founders would totally love, use this holiday as a reminder to ask for what you’re worth. After all, now is better than the end of the year, when your employer’s upcoming budget may already be set. 
  3. Do a financial checkup: With the holidays right around the corner, Labor Day is the perfect time to take stock of your finances. Analyze how much is coming in and out, create concrete savings goals, and develop action plans for boosting your credit scores and paying off debt.
  4. Get organized: If you support certain labor policies, use Labor Day as an opportunity to make your voice heard. You could, for example, get involved with the Fight for $15, ask your representatives to support paid parental leave, or consider joining or forming a union.
  5. Relax: We know, we know, this sounds counterintuitive! But if you have the opportunity to do so, consider taking the day completely off. Science says vacations make you more refreshed and productive. So enjoy the holiday as its creators intended: by kicking back and celebrating the fruits of your labor.

However you decide to spend this Labor Day, keep the words of Samuel Gompers, former president of the American Federation of Labor, in mind. In 1910, he wrote in the New York Times: “Of all the days celebrated for one cause or another, there is not one which stands so conspicuously for the social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September.”

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