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Teaching Your Students About Labor Day

Teaching Your Students About Labor Day

For many people, Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. Many schools start right before or right after Labor Day, and families use the long weekend to celebrate with family and friends. 

Do your students know the origins of the Labor Day holiday? The holiday is a great time to connect US history to students' daily lives. You can teach students as much or as little about the labor movement as you deem appropriate. There are simple videos and websites on the basic information on Labor Day, or you can have your students explore the labor movement in more depth. 

Here are the basics on Labor Day:

In the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. People were moving from farms into the cities to work in factories and mills. The owners of the factories were making a lot of money, but the workers, many of them immigrants, struggled. They worked 12 hour days six and seven days a week for little money. Children as young as five worked in factories, mills, and mines and earned even less than the adults. 

Workers in countries around the world faced the same dangerous working conditions and began forming unions to negotiate for better wages and safer workplaces. The unions organized strikes and protest marches. 

The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882, when workers in New York City marched from City Hall to Union Square to bring attention to labor rights. The idea of a Labor Day parade spread to other states. 

In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike when the owner cut the workforce and lowered wages. The American Railroad Union called for a complete boycott of all Pullman Palace Railroad Cars. The boycott wreaked havoc with railroad traffic. The president, Grover Cleveland, sent federal troops to end the strike. During the strike, 30 workers were killed, and 57 others were wounded. 

Congress quickly passed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday to show their support for workers. President Cleveland signed the bill on June 28, 1894. 

In the United States. We celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September. Other countries celebrate a similar holiday on May 1st, but they call it International Workers Day.

You can use the resources on this page to create a lesson or activity for your students, or you can brainstorm a list of questions and have them find the answers.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What is Labor Day?

  2. When did we start celebrating Labor Day?

  3. Do other countries celebrate Labor Day?

  4. Who started Labor Day?

  5. What activities happen on Labor Day?

  6. Why is Labor Day important?

  7. Which president made Labor Day a national holiday?

  8. What events led to the creation of Labor Day?

  9. What does labor mean?

  10. How does Labor Day fit into US history?

If you are especially creative (and have time), you can run a simulation with your students to teach them about Labor Day. At the beginning of the day, announce that you are hiring the students to work in the classroom. Tell them you will pay them, 50 Skittles for their work that day. If they have to go to the bathroom, they will have to pay you 5 Skittles. When it is recess, tell them they have too much work to do, and they can't go to recess. About an hour into the day, tell them you have looked at the budget, and you can't afford to pay them 50 Skittles. You will only pay them 40 Skittles. In another hour, decrease their pay to 25 Skittles. I would run the simulation until lunch. Then, I would share the history of Labor Day with them. Any recess time they missed should be added to the afternoon. This is also an activity that you will want to share with your administrators and parents before you do it. There may be students in your class who will need to be warned about the simulation. 

If you run a simulation in your classroom, please comment to let us know what you did and how it went! 

Here are some Labor Day resources:

Ducksters: Labor Day

Ducksters: Labor Unions for Kids Labor Day Article

7 Surprising Labor Day Facts (for older students)

New York Times: What is Labor Day?

KidsKonnect: Industrial Revolution

Industrial Revolution: Facts and Information for Kids

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