Labor Day’s organizing roots emerge this year, with strike talks and contract battles

Pilots and flight attendants, actors and writers and auto workers are among the labor groups emboldened to win better deals from their employers.

Labor Day brings big sales and barbecues to a holiday that marks the traditional end of summer. But its activist roots are especially visible this year as unions challenge how workers are treated — from writers and actors in Hollywood to the auto production lines of Detroit to pilots and flight attendants in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The early-September tribute to workers — an official holiday for almost 130 years — arrives with an emboldened labor movement that’s creating an environment closer to the era from which Labor Day was born.

Like the late 1800s, workers are facing rapid economic transformation — and a growing gap in pay between themselves and new billionaire leaders of industry, mirroring the stark inequalities seen more than a century ago.

Business Briefing

Become a business insider with the latest news.

“There’s a lot of historical rhyming between the period of the origins of Labor Day and today,” said Todd Vachon, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Then, they had the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. Today, we have the Musks and the Bezoses. ... It’s a similar period of transition and change and also of resistance — of working people wanting to have some kind of dignity.”

Between writers and actors on strike, contentious contract negotiations that led to a new labor deal for 340,000 unionized UPS workers, and active picket lines across multiple industries, the labor in Labor Day is again at the forefront.


An annual Gallup poll that gauges union sentiment around the country estimates 67% of the population approves of labor unions. Though that’s down slightly from 2022 and 2021, it’s higher than the 32 years preceding that.

Nationwide, the number of both public and private sector workers belonging to unions grew by 273,000 last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. But the total workforce increased at an even faster rate — meaning the total percentage of those belonging to unions fell slightly.

Texas and other southern states have some of the lowest union membership rates in the country, according to the website Construction Coverage, which analyzed data from and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


In Dallas-Fort Worth, only 3.8% of workers belong to unions — the seventh-fewest among large metros, the analysis showed. The Houston and San Antonio areas also ranked among the large metros with low union membership.

Here are other things to know about Labor Day this year.

When was the first Labor Day observed?

The origins of Labor Day date back to the late 19th century, when activists first sought to establish a day that would pay tribute to workers.

The first U.S. Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. Some 10,000 workers marched in a parade organized by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.

A handful of cities and states began to adopt laws recognizing Labor Day in the years that followed, yet it took more than a decade before President Grover Cleveland signed a congressional act in 1894 establishing the first Monday of September as a legal holiday.

Canada’s Labour Day became official that same year, more than two decades after trade unions were legalized in the country.

The national holidays were established during a period of pivotal actions by organized labor. In the U.S., Vachon points to the Pullman Railroad Strike that began in May 1894, which effectively shut down rail traffic in much of the country.


“The federal government intervened to break the strike in a very violent way that left more than a dozen workers dead,” Vachon said. Cleveland soon made Labor Day a national holiday in an attempt “to repair the trust of the workers.”

A broader push from organized labor had been in the works for some time. Workers demanded an eight-hour workday in 1886 during the deadly Haymarket Affair in Chicago, said George Villanueva, an associate professor of communication and journalism at Texas A&M University. In commemoration of that clash, May Day was established as a larger international holiday, he said.

Part of the impetus in the U.S. to create a separate federal holiday was to shift attention away from May Day — which had been more closely linked with socialist and radical labor movements in other countries, Vachon said.

How has Labor Day evolved over the years?

The meaning of Labor Day has changed a lot since that first parade in New York City.


It’s become a long weekend for millions that come with big sales, end-of-summer celebrations and, of course, a last chance to dress in white fashionably. Whether celebrations remain faithful to the holiday’s origins depends on where you live.

New York and Chicago, for example, hold parades for thousands of workers and their unions. Such festivities aren’t practiced as much in regions where unionization has historically been eroded, Vachon said, or didn’t take a strong hold in the first place.

When Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, unions in the U.S. were largely contested and courts would often rule strikes illegal, Vachon said, leading to violent disputes. It wasn’t until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that private sector employees were granted the right to join unions. Later into the 20th century, states also began passing legislation to allow unionization in the public sector — but even today, not all states allow collective bargaining for public workers.

Rates of organized labor have been on the decline nationally for decades. More than 35% of private sector workers had a union in 1953 compared with about 6% today. Political leanings in different regions have also played a big role, with blue states tending to have higher unionization rates.


Hawaii and New York had the highest rates of union membership in 2022, respectively, followed by Washington, California and Rhode Island, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

What labor actions are we seeing this year?

A reinvigorated labor movement is back in the national spotlight.

In Hollywood, screenwriters have been on strike for nearly four months — surpassing a 100-day work stoppage that ground many productions to a halt in 2007-08. Actors joined the picket lines in July — as both unions seek better compensation and protections on the use of artificial intelligence.


Unionized workers at UPS threatened a mass walkout before approving a new contract last month that includes increased pay and safety protections for workers. A strike at UPS would have disrupted the supply chain nationwide.

Last month, auto workers also overwhelmingly voted to give union leaders the authority to call strikes against Detroit car companies if a contract agreement isn’t reached by the Sept. 14 deadline. The more than 4,500 workers at General Motors’ Arlington assembly plant joined in the United Auto Workers’ last strike in 2019.

Over 26,000 flight attendants at Fort Worth-based American Airlines also voted last week to authorize a strike.


“Labor Day should take on a whole new meaning for American Airlines management this year,” said Julie Hedrick, the flight attendants union national president. “It’s long past time for significant increases in compensation and improvements to our working conditions. We are ready to bring these negotiations to a close, or we may be ready to strike.”

The next day, pilots at Southwest Airlines staged informational pickets at five airports to call attention to its stalled contract talks. The pilots union and Dallas-based carrier have been negotiating for over three years.

“I think there’s going to be definitely more attention given to labor this Labor Day than there may have been in many recent years,” Vachon said. Organizing around labor rights has “come back into the national attention. ... And [workers] are standing up and fighting for it.”