Dorothy Day and the History of Labor Day
Thursday, September 2, 2021

Celebrated annually on the first Monday of September in the United States and Canada, Labor Day is known to many employees as the end of a 3-day weekend or the symbolic end of the summer. While it is a nice transition into fall, the day has more significance than we may realize. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882, but it was not until June 28, 1894 that Congress passed a law to make the first Monday in September a legal holiday.

Before the creation of this federal holiday, enraged workers and activists led a labor movement in the 1880s to protest harsh working conditions and low wages. At the peak of the Industrial Revolution, “the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks” and “children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country” in difficult and often underpaid working conditions.    

There Is a history of Catholicism intertwined with the Labor Day movement, which continued to garner support from Catholics such as Dorothy Day, even after Labor Day became a federal holiday.

A Catholic convert, Day was an American writer and activist who converted from atheism to Catholicism at the age of 30. She co-founded a newspaper and the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 to provide centers of hospitality in rural areas across the country and to advocate for worker’s rights, especially those of the working poor.  Dorothy saw the organization of workers as a means to reduce economic inequality. She actively supported labor strikers, providing meals for workers going on strike. For those who wanted to support the movement, she shared information on upcoming strikes as well. 

In support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives, and pacifist culture, many of those active in Dorothy’s Catholic Worker movement have continued to protest against racism, unfair labor practices, social injustice and war, even to the point of being jailed. The Catholic Worker Movement has continued since Dorothy Day’s death in 1980.

In 2012, the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops endorsed Day’s cause for sainthood, which is currently under review by the Vatican. Dorothy’s life was characterized by her service to the poor, advocacy for peace and justice, and her faithfulness to Scripture. She selflessly fought for causes that she did not necessarily suffer from, spoke for the voiceless, and advocated for their rights.

As women witnessing the countless challenges of this world, what words of wisdom might Dorothy have for us? If before us today, I believe Dorothy would repeat her words, “You can spend your own time agonizing or organizing.” We can see the sadness in the world and be saddened by it, or we can let it ignite a fire within us and be ready to face it head-on. We can see our neighbors suffer and ignore them, or we can make an effort to improve their quality of life.

Next week, as you rest from work on Labor Day, here are ways you can honor the holiday’s history and Dorothy Day’s legacy:

Sophie-Anne Baril Sachs

Content Advisor, 2021-present

Sophie spent part of her childhood in Haiti, and then moved to Florida at a young age. Sophie earned her undergraduate degree from Nova Southeastern University and her master’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University in DC. Following her early career years in the international development sector, she transitioned to working in the public sector as an international economics professional. Inspired by Ecclesiastes 11:6, Sophie looks forward to helping women cultivate thriving careers and lifestyles.

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