Ask most Coloradans what Labor Day means to them, and they’d talk about the summer’s “last hurrah” of the three-day weekend. It’s the second bookend framing of the unofficial summer season, running from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tube Boulder Creek, camp in Summit County, fly fish the Tarryall, or hammock in the backyard - just get it in before the pleasure season sunsets.
But the 19th-century roots of Labor Day were far from leisurely. Industrialization was changing workplace conditions and accelerating the production economy. Workers were treated like cogs in a machine, facing inhuman hours, dismal pay, and hazardous work environments. In response, labor unions emerged seeking to protect the safety and rights of the labor force.
With increasing attention being paid to workers' conditions and civic contributions, an international collaboration of trade unions and socialist groups first recognized May Day, or Worker’s Day, on May 1, 1889. The holiday was originally a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, a deadly conflict between labor activists and police, and it started a movement to recognize the social and economic achievements brought to society by laborers around the world.
May Day has since been celebrated in France, Germany, Australia, Mexico, India, and the United Kingdom, but the United States soon took its own path toward recognizing workers.
The labor movement in America gained momentum as workers organized protests to demand better working conditions. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a pivotal event leading to the establishment of Labor Day. Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, called for a nationwide strike to support the Pullman Palace Car Company workers in their fight for fair treatment. The strike paralyzed railway traffic and, unfortunately, turned violent as clashes erupted between strikers and law enforcement .
As a reconciliatory act toward laborers, President Grover Cleveland adopted legislation in 1894 to make Labor Day an official U.S. holiday on the first Monday of September–a move away from May Day due to the socialist affiliations of that holiday.
Since then, the holiday has annually recognized the contributions of America’s workers in building the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our nation. The holiday commemorates past laborers' courage and resilience in their pursuit of social and economic justice, recognizing the sacrifices made by workers who fought for fair labor laws, reduced work hours, and improved safety standards. It has evolved over the years to celebrate not only the achievements of the labor movement but also the broader contributions of American workers from all sectors, from factory workers to teachers to healthcare professionals to entrepreneurs to construction workers. Labor Day has always recognized both the goodness of labor but also the trials associated with it.
From a biblical perspective, we can both uphold and expand the historical vision of Labor Day. All workers are made in the image and likeness of a God who worked and blessed human work (Gen. 1:1-25, 26-27, 28-30), and thus are possessed of innate human dignity that must be justly upheld. The Exodus story of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt is a critique of “empire economics” that would build unchecked national progress on the backs of abused workers.
Workers’ rights and workplace conditions in the West have improved significantly over the past two centuries since the advent of Labor Day. But workers today still face myriad challenges in their workplaces: workload and time pressures, childcare demands, transportation issues, mental health issues, or skyrocketing costs of housing and medical care.
We recognize that though still good, human work after the Fall is fraught with thistles and thorns, toiled at by the sweat of one’s brow (Gen. 3:16-19). These images of frustration in work are agrarian, but we can ask what the “thistles and thorns” of our work might be in IT, marketing, social work, or home health care. Labor Day is a pause to recognize both the challenges for all workers, but also to see the goodness of God’s purpose for our work that endures through the frustrations.
Finally, the Scriptures recognize that labor’s good is an enduring, and even eternal one. Images like Isaiah 65 show us a new heaven and new earth where now un-toilsome work through home building and farming continues, as “my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain…” (vv. 22-23). At the same time, Christ promises that we can enter his rest with him today, even in our frustrated-yet-purposeful work: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their labor, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10).
Both historically and biblically, Labor Day offers us a moment to celebrate the hard work of our labors in both its goodness and difficulties. But there’s no harm in reflecting on that with the Lord from your hammock.
Brian is the VP of Formation here at DIFW and also leads our 5280 Fellowship program. Prior to landing at DIFW, he served in pastoral ministry for thirteen years and at Denver Seminary for four years. His vocation includes moving ideas out into life through relationships and conversation – whether that applies to God, work, the Church, good beer, or Liverpool Football Club. He married way out of his league, and spends most of his free-time being parented by his two daughters.