A union worker at a conference in DC (Photo credit: Flickr user Medill DC)

Today is Labor Day, a federally recognized holiday designated to celebrate the American worker. But while millions of Americans are enjoying the day off, it's important to remember where this holiday came from.

In 1887 Oregon began the first formal “Labor Day” and by 1897 President Glover Cleveland made it a federal holiday, reacting to pressure from unions following the contentious Pullman Strike.

But it wasn't just this day off that unions gave Americans. Here's some other things we can thank unionized workers for:

  • The Weekend: The ultra-right Mises Institute notes that in the relatively labor union-free year of 1870, the average workweek for most Americans was 61 hours — almost double what most Americans work now. In response to this, in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, labor unions engaged in massive strikes in order to demand shorter workweeks so that Americans could be home with their loved ones instead of constantly toiling for their employers with no leisure time. By 1937, these labor actions created enough political momentum to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which helped create a federal framework for a shorter workweek that included room for workers to spend time with their families and engage in other leisurely activities.
  • Widespread Employer-Based Health Coverage: As unions grew in numbers in the 1930s and 40s, there was a rapid expansion of employers offering their employees health care. As Health Affairs notes, "In industries dominated by a few giant firms, unions used their “countervailing power” to make the firms share some of their potential profits with workers in the form of high wages and generous health insurance benefits. "
  • Ending Child Labor:  The first American Federation of Labor (AFL) national convention passed “a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment” in 1881, and soon after states across the country adopted similar recommendations, leading up to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which regulated child labor on the federal level for the first time.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act: Labor unions as part of the AFL-CIO federation led the fight for this 1993 law, which “requires state agencies and private employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave annually for workers to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, seriously ill family member or for the worker’s own illness.”
  • Keeping Income Inequality In Check: As research from the Center for American Progress has shown, the middle class had its largest share of national income at exactly the same time that union membership was highest in the United States. In 1967, the middle class had approximately 53 percent of the national income, while 27 percent of workers belong to a union. By 2007, the middle class's share of national income dropped to around 46 percent with a union membership rate of around 11 percent.

Today, while you're taking your day off, remember all the things that unions have done for American workers. They made America a great place to work and live, and as they have declined, so has the middle class. If we want to rebuild an American economy that works for all, unions are a great place to start.