Labor Day: A Day to Contemplate Social Movements and “Dreams”

by Jane Hopkins Walsh

Some people may have today off from their job to celebrate “the workingmen’s [sic] holiday;” others – like nurses – will be working today and we honor those nurses and any other folx who were not afforded a laborday rest. Interestingly,  the idea of a “labor day holiday” arose from a social movement and became a federal holiday in 1894. The labor movement was organized in the heat of the Industrial Revolution to address the inequites and unsafe working conditions forced on workers, including young children, women, elderly and our nation’s first immigrants. Grassroots, organized labor movements resulted in nationwide strikes, protests, and unrest. This eventually led to safer working conditions for many workers. However it is important to acknowledge that the labor movement did not benefit all workers equally. Black and African American workers were barred from many unions; women were frequently denied equal representation (Du Bois, 2017; Hill, 1996; Milkman, 2013; Washington, 1913).

Illustration of the first American Labor parade held in New York City on September 5, 1882 as it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper’s September 16, 1882 issue.

Immigrants continue to be a critical part of our nations workforce. Today let us remember this historical movement and present day labor goups like The United Farmworkers who continue to fight for safer working conditions for the nations workforce, many of whom continue to live in poverty despite working one or more jobs. The current stratifcation of labor laws afford uneven legal protection for migrant workers and limit farmworkers’ ability to collectively organize. We as workers owe a great debt to the workers who came before, fighting for workplace fairness.

August 28th also marked the 56 year anniversay of  Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech.”  In the article below,  New York Times reporter Adeel Hassan interviews Dr. King’s son, Martin Kuther King III, about his thoughts on social justice movements in the present, revisiting his father’s dream and where we as a nation stand in relation to the dream. As we reflect on the history of American labor and Civil Rights efforts to improve work conditions, opening it up for all people, consider subscribing to the NYT’s ongoing project, Race/Related, a weekly newsletter focused on race, identity and culture. Engaging deeply with our past and present, untangling the influences and impulses that situate us collectively in our present, are the first steps toward a more just, equitable future.


Du Bois, W. E. B. (2017). Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Routledge

Hill, H. (1996). The problem of race in American labor history. Reviews in American History, 24(2), 189-208.

Milkman, R. (2013). Women, work, and protest: A century of US women’s labor history. Routledge.

 Washington, B., (1913, June) The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Jane Hopkins Walsh is a Spanish speaking pediatric nurse practitioner at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is a Ph.D.candidate and Jonas-Blaustein Scholar at Boston College. She is also enrolled in a certificate program at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

Jane is a volunteer and board member for the longest-serving NGO in Honduras called Cape CARES ( Jane is passionate about social justice and immigrant rights and volunteers for Project Reunify (, the Dilley Pro Bono Project ( and The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law  (

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