The Importance of Labor Day

On Monday, September 6, the United States will celebrate what has become known as Labor Day. It was designated a national holiday and signed into law on June 8, 1894, by President Grover Cleveland. It has since that time been celebrated each year on the first Monday in September. However, several countries around the world celebrate a similar day, some calling it International Worker’s Day or May Day.

But what is Labor Day? First, as a holiday – a transliteration of the words “holy” and “day” – it is a time to give attention to something worthy of special recognition or importance. The early holy days are associated with both the ordinances the ancient Jewish people practiced in obedience to the commands they were given by God, as well as a response to their experiences with Him. As God was “holy” – utterly set apart from man and creation, the festivals created - some solemn and some very joyful – were to be a time set apart to be reminded of the encounters they had with their enemies, as well as the deliverance God had promised and fulfilled. The holiday was a time for remembrance…and the giving of thanks. (We even have a holiday today in the United States called Thanksgiving, don’t we?)

Labor Day as a holiday in the U.S. originally began in the early 1800s as local celebrations by members of labor organizations to recognize the many contributions workers had made to the economic success of the areas in which they lived and worked. It was at this same time that unions became popular - and have increasingly become more powerful. Workers - especially in factories and in the farming industry - banded together to fight against the poor pay, lack of safety, and mistreatment they experienced at the hands of the rich and elite business owners. These owners, mostly men, came to be known as “Robber Barons”.

It is, in fact, because of the fight of these workers that all of the international celebrations occur in May. For in May 1886, one of the earliest and bloodiest protests occurred in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Before it ended, several civilians, as well as several policemen were killed by a bomb. To show solidarity with U.S. workers, many from around the world who were also experiencing poor working conditions pushed to have May Day become a symbolic day to recognize worker oppression.

As the movement began to grow and became more recognized in the U.S., municipalities and then states introduced and later passed bills to make Labor Day local law. Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey were among the early adopters. But it is the state of Oregon that is credited with being the first state to ratify Labor Day as a state holiday in February 1887. It was also to distance the celebration from the association with the Haymarket bombing that President Cleveland chose September as the official holiday. As the Summer season was coming to a close, it seemed fitting to end it with a “holiday”.

Many who are reading this article may also recognize that the founding of the Volunteers of America, including our affiliate, also occurred during this same time. In the late 1800s, the nation was reeling from the Civil War (and in many ways, still is). There was great poverty and need, especially in the north. Interestingly, the original employees of VOA were all “volunteers” - those who were committed to the founders’ desire to reach and uplift all whom they came in contact with. Many of the early workers had also been recipients of the work that the agency conducted in the communities in which they ministered, and those workers felt moved to “give back”. And we are now still celebrating our 125th year in operation.

While the focus of the agency’s services has always been directed to care for the most vulnerable (especially as disparities may always exist here on earth between those who have and those who need), the agency is also growing in its recognition of the importance of caring for – and rewarding – those who carry out the work – it’s employees. To this end, the agency has purposed to make Employee Engagement & Recognition one of its chief initiatives over the next few years. We have already instituted many different activities, monthly, quarterly, and yearly awards to staff; we announce and reward employees for years of service/milestones, birthdays, and personal & professional accomplishments. We also do our best to support career development and provide opportunities for internal transfers and promotions, as well as staff improvement.

In addition, we provide regular surveys to hear feedback from staff on how they are doing and how the agency can improve resources for staff and their families. Some of these resources include webinars and workshops on health, wellness, and spiritual well-being. We also have ministry services and staff to assist with prayer, an employee fund to assist in times of emergency, as well as employee benefits to go along with a host of community resources, to name a few.

More importantly, the agency also remains committed to advocating in the political sphere to influence decisions made regarding federal and state mandates governing reimbursement rates and the associated impact on wages. This is especially true in the service lines where the hardest working employees who often do the most difficult jobs are often also paid the least. The Bible tells us that “…a workman is worthy of his hire” (1 Tim5:18) and as an agency, I believe we fight as we can to see that this principle is honored.

So, as the country celebrates Labor Day, please know that we celebrate you – the employees of Volunteers of America Chesapeake and Carolinas. Please, even if you must work on the upcoming holiday (and many do), know that “…your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Co 15:58). And even amidst the suffering that continues around the world and in our very country even now, we must take time to rest when we can from this labor, so that we may gain the strength to do it again when we are needed.

Rest when and while you can…you’ve earned it.

Respectfully submitted, Dr. Keith A Williams

For more information on the history of Jewish traditions visit:

For more information on the history of Labor Day visit:

For more information on the history of VOA and the social welfare movement visit: https://socialwelfare.library....