By Jane Suda, Head of Reference & Information Services

For many of us, Labor Day 2020 will mark the end of a long, lonely, socially distanced summer. For Fordham, this holiday marks the start of a new, hybrid, Fordham Forward school year!  

Given the economic turmoil of the past year, and the tenuous state of our health and well being as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the history of Labor Day, what it means to our nation, and what it means to us as we embark on this new academic year.

What is Labor Day?

On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday; President Grover Cleveland signed that act into law. According to the United States Department of Labor the holiday is a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It recognizes the patriotic act of working, and the patriotic act of supporting and celebrating those who work to improve the economic stability of our nation. This year Labor Day falls on September 7th.

Prior to the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the average worker in the United States labored 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Paid vacation, sick days, and weekends off were rare.  Working conditions were not safe or sanitary, small children worked alongside adults, pay scales were not regulated, and breaks for meals and rest were uncommon. Throughout the country, issues of worker rights and safety in contrast to the entrepreneurial interests of business owners and industrialists were in constant dispute. Workers formed unions to give voice and power to groups of laborers and to fight for ethical, equitable, safe, and consistent work conditions for employees. 

In 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed, a federation of many unions and workers fighting together for common causes. The American government, at first hostile to labor unions, slowly began to develop a more balanced relationship with business and labor, and over time helped transform work conditions in the United States through regulation and law. That transformation would not have occurred without the tireless efforts of labor activists. The enactment of a federal holiday in 1894 in support of laborers was a significant reflection of the slowly changing attitudes about labor in America.

The labor movement has historically been concerned with issues of workplace safety, immigrant rights, civil rights, gender equity, consistent and transparent compensation, disability and reasonable accommodation, time afforded for sickness and family care, time earned for vacation, breaks for wellbeing, affordable and accessible healthcare, and retirement planning and funding. All of these issues are still of primary importance for us today. We are indebted to those who fought, and those who continue to fight, for workers’ rights, and to those who petitioned the government to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act that gives us an 8 hour workday, a 40 hour work week, and a minimum wage.

This Labor Day, please take a moment to reflect on “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Please take a moment to reflect on those who advocate for workers’ rights. Please take a moment to appreciate the labor of others. Please take a day off from work, because you can.

Resources to Learn More

If you are not sure what you want to do with your day off, perhaps you might want to learn more about labor in the USA by exploring some of these resources available via the Fordham library and free web.

Selected Streaming Films & Videos


Mermet, D. Azam, O. (Director). (2015). Howard Zinn: A people’s history of the United States [Video file]. Under the Milky Way. Retrieve from the Kanopy Streaming Videos database.
Benson, B. Patel, A. (Producers). Bratt, P. (Director). (2017). Dolores. [Video/DVD] Ro*Co Films. Retrieve from the Academic Video Online (AVON) database.
Honey, M. Webber, E. (Producers). Honey, M. (Director). (2016). Love and solidarity: James Lawson & nonviolence in the search for workers’ rights. [Video/DVD] Bullfrog Films. Retrieve from the Academic Video Online (AVON) database.
Blank, D. (Producer & Director). (2001). Standing tall: Women unionize the catfish industry. [Video/DVD] Filmakers Library. Retrieve from the Academic Video Online (AVON) database.
Kingberry Productions, & WDIV-TV (Producers). (1998). The rouge: The factory and the workers. [Video/DVD] Filmakers Library. Retrieve from the Academic Video Online (AVON) database.

Selected Books


Loughery, J. (2020). Dorothy Day: Dissenting voice of the American century. [eBook edition] Simon & Schuster. Retrieve from the library catalog.

Pawel, M. (2014). The crusades of Cesar Chavez: A biography. Bloomsbury Press.
(LC, RH, W) call number: HD6509.C48 P38 2014. Retrieve from the library stacks.

Savage, L. (2018). Never justice, never peace : Mother Jones and the miner rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks. [eBook edition] West Virginia University Press. Retrieve from the library catalog.

Levine, D. (2000). Bayard Rustin and the civil rights movement. [eBook edition] Rutgers University Press. Retrieve from the library catalog.

Drescher, N. M. (2019). United University Professions: pioneering in higher education unionism. [eBook edition] SUNY Press.  Retrieve from the library catalog.

Weber, K. (2006). Triangle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (LC, RH) call number: PS3573.E235 T75 2006. Retrieve from the library stacks.

Chang, G. H. (2019). Ghosts of Gold Mountain : The epic story of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (LC, RH) call number: HD8039.R3152 C524 2019. Retrieve from the library stacks.

Chang, G. H. (2019). The Chinese and the iron road: building the transcontinental railroad. [eBook edition] Stanford University Press. Retrieve from the library catalog.

Steinbeck, J. (1966). In dubious battle. Bantam Books. (RH) call number: PS3537.T3234 I5 1966. Retrieve physical item from the library stacks. Retrieve eBook from the Open Library.

Sinclair, U. (2003). The jungle: The uncensored original edition. See Sharp Press. (RH) call number: PS3537.I87 J8 2003B Retrieve physical item from the library stacks. Retrieve eBook from the library catalog.

Selected Free Websites

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