On Labor Day, we celebrate the contributions and achievements of American workers. Labor Day was established as a holiday for American workers in the late 1800s – a time when it was commonplace for workers to work as much as 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to eke out a living. Working conditions in factories, mills, mines, and other workplaces were dangerous, particularly for young children, who could be found working alongside adults for a fraction of adult wages.
Much has changed to make work better since that first Labor Day – because people decided that work could be better. Workers organized to improve their working conditions. Family welfare organizations advocated for an end to child labor. Henry Ford famously doubled his workers’ wages, setting a new industry standard. And importantly, beginning in the 1930s, the nation enacted laws to establish standards for work.
This past spring, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program hosted a five-part discussion series to reflect on key pieces of legislation that influenced work and working conditions. Expert panelists considered how these laws influence the experience of workers today and discussed what we need now to address the critical challenges working people face and build a better future of work. We are pleased to release a video highlighting key moments from those conversations, American Values, Work and Worker Rights.
Laws enacted from the 1930s to the 1970s responded to what were current workplace challenges, and these laws improved the workplace and economic opportunity for generations of workers. But for too long, these laws – by design – excluded women, people of color, and immigrants from their protections. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made some progress in outlawing employment discrimination, but women and workers of color still face significant disadvantage in the labor market.
Today, however, many of the workplace issues these laws were intended to address—inadequate compensation, unsafe working conditions, inequitable treatment, lack of agency and respect—are emerging in new forms. The precarity of earnings from work was quickly apparent in the pandemic when millions of workers had to resort to food lines at the loss of the first paycheck. The issue of health and safety at work became apparent as millions of essential workers were exposed to disease, and the term PPE (personal protective equipment), something many essential workers lacked, came into our vernacular. The #MeToo movement and the reinvigorated movement for racial justice highlighted the longstanding challenges women and workers of color face every day when they go to work. We are in a moment in which working people are struggling to have their voice heard at work so that management will meaningfully address their concerns. From warehouses to tech firms to coffee shops to newsrooms and more, we see working people coming together to demand respect for their labor.
Our national labor laws now need updating to address the challenges of a modern economy and protect timeless human values. As a nation, we can again choose to build a better future of work, providing greater freedom, opportunity, and prosperity for all.
This Labor Day, we join the leaders, whose voices you’ll hear in the video, in stating that it’s time to restore American values at work. And the best place to start is by reimagining our labor laws so that every worker has the ability to work in a quality job that includes good compensation, the opportunity to advance, and a workplace that promotes equity, safety, and dignity.
Tweet Labor laws made work better for generations of workers, but often denied protections to marginalized groups. Let’s work to confront these inequities — and address the new challenges that workers now face.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.