Fighting for Workers' Rights 127 Years After Labor Day Was Signed Into Law

By Faye Lessler |

We’re all used to being bombarded with advertisements for holiday sales and back-to-school shopping on Labor Day weekend, but is that what this holiday is truly about?

This Labor Day, we’re pushing back against consumerist messaging by focusing instead on workers rights and the history of labor movements in this country.

The History of Labor Day and Labor Movements in the U.S.

What we now know as an end-of-summer holiday for BBQ’s and beach vacations, actually has pretty radical origins. Nearly 12 years of direct action and worker organizing had to happen before Labor Day was signed into law as a federal holiday on June 28th, 1894.

Since then, American workers have never stopped fighting for better wages, safe working conditions, and equal rights in the workplace. From the strike that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, to the United Farmworkers demonstrations in the 1960’s, Americans have a long history of labor movements.

“Labor movements have been incredibly effective. The five-day workweek didn’t happen on its own, and neither did things like minimum wage or laws that regulate the minimum working age. This is what labor movements and collective bargaining can do.”—Geana Sieburger, GDS founder

Workers Are Still Fighting For Their Rights

We’re in the second year of a pandemic that’s left millions unemployed and turned billionaires into trillionaires. Workers' health, wages and basic human rights have been shunted aside in the name of “the economy”, and a new labor movement is emerging in response. 

Remote work has opened up new possibilities for corporate offices. Seeing into our colleagues’ homes over digital meetings has made space for more compassion around childcare and work-life balance. “Unskilled” workers have been redefined as essential, and public support for unions is higher than it's been since the 1960’s. The COVID-19 pandemic has also renewed conversations around raising the minimum wage and implementing a 32-hour workweek.

Even before the pandemic, unrest amongst American workers drove nearly half a million of them to go on strike in 2018 and 2019. A series of teacher strikes succeeded in securing better wages and working conditions for educators across the country, including in Colorado, Arizona, West Virginia, and California.

Even more workers were pushed to walk out of their offices in 2020. Amazon warehouse workers protested poor working conditions and low wages. During the Black Lives Matter uprisings of last summer, players in the WNBA, NBA, and other sports leagues refused to show up for work, with one team stating “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

This summer, 850 Frito-Lay factory workers in Topeka, Kansas went on strike against 12-hour back-to-back shifts, stagnant wages, and low morale. 1100 coal miners in Alabama have been striking for five months now, despite receiving threats and violence from their employer as well as local police. In California, garment workers have been organizing for years to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act, a law that would ensure safe working conditions and a minimum hourly wage. 

Why Workers Rights are Important

“Workers rights are human rights. They’re important because ALL people deserve a safe and respectable way to put food on the table.”—Geana Sieburger, GDS founder

GDS Cloth Goods was founded for the purpose of celebrating workers as much as we celebrate the materials and rituals in our homes and lives. We always say that people’s hands create our products, and we value those hands a great deal. When you connect with your morning cup of coffee, you’re also connecting to a greater community of workers who sewed your filter, picked the cotton, and processed the coffee beans.

As a business, our goal is to uplift people, create jobs and opportunities, and to invest in pathways that allow all of our partners to thrive. We’ve seen firsthand the amount of care and time that our partners put into creating each product, which is why we’ll never choose growth or profit that comes at the expense of these people.

Over the last year and a half of pandemic, we’ve reaffirmed that workers are essential to our lives and communities. Yet essential workers are still expected to risk their health in abusive workplaces that often pay less than minimum wage, while offering no healthcare coverage or benefits. We’ve seen how race, gender, and class affect workers rightsfrom undocumented workers being left out of unemployment benefits, to incarcerated workers making little or no wages, and Black women making only 63% of what others make in the U.S.

The pandemic has made it easier for people to see the growing disparity between the wealthy owning class, and the working class. Those disparities already existed before COVID-19, but the new visibility on labor issues has opened up new possibilities for the future.

Workers rights may have come a long way since the 1800’s, but it's clear that labor movements are just as important in 2021 as they’ve ever been. Laborers in this country are still fighting for their rights. So as we celebrate this Labor Day weekend, let’s remember to talk about workers rights, support labor organizers, and most importantly, express gratitude for workers and all that they do to improve our lives.



Faye Lessler is a writer who helps environmental justice leaders step up, speak up, and make a difference. She believes that we all have a unique role to play in building a better future for everyone. When she’s not writing about environmental justice, you can find her in the kitchen, in the garden, or curled up somewhere with her nose in a book.

Cover and header images were taken in the factory in San Francisco where our goods are made. Pictured above is Hong, the head sewer and production manager at the factory. These images were taken by Andria Lo. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers image via National Geographic. Image of garment workers curtesy of Garment Workers Center.