Put the “Labor” Back in Labor Day

Created by the labor movement, Labor Day celebrates the social and economic achievements of American workers. There are plenty of ways to meaningfully honor these origins.

By Sara G. Stephens


Houston Labor Fact

In 1946, as many as 10,000 workers marched on City Hall during Houston’s city-wide strike of municipal employees, who demanded better wages and working conditions. The city streets overflowed with garbage for days. Bakers, taxis drivers, railroad clerks, all joined striking municipal employees in a demonstration of solidarity.

 October, 1913 - Houston, Texas. Millie, a 4-year-old cotton picker, on farm near Houston. She picked about eight pounds of cotton a day. Photo and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine
October, 1913 – Houston, Texas. Millie, a 4-year-old cotton picker, on farm near Houston. She picked about eight pounds of cotton a day. Photo and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine

Houston’s big on barbecue, it’s true. And because Labor Day is the unofficial closing of summer, barbecue has become the new tradition in how we celebrate this national holiday. But Houston also has a fascinating history of labor. And that’s what Labor Day is supposed to celebrate.

Don’t let your kids grow up as many of us have, not knowing the difference between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Fill them with the spirit of the holiday. Tell them stories of the American worker, engage them in what it means to work in America and contribute to its growth, and enrich them with a fun activity so they can better appreciate how far we’ve come in appreciating and protecting the workers who have helped build the Bayou City.

Here are eight ideas you can consider for celebrating a meaningful Labor Day with your family.

1. Explore Child Labor.

Ask your kids how they feel about going to school every day. Then ask them how they like doing chores every day. Which would they rather do? What if they didn’t have a choice? What if they had to work every day, away from home, out of school, often doing dangerous, grueling jobs, for very little pay?

Through the early 1900s, this was the life for millions of children across the U.S., including Houston. During this period, Lewis Hine, a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, traveled the country investigating and documenting child labor in the U.S. His photos carried detailed captions of his encounter with each child: his job, employer, and notes from any conversational exchanges.

At this time, Western Union Telegraph Company, formerly Southwestern Telegraph Company, with headquarters in Houston, had gained control of all the telegraph lines in the United States. The company often employed children as bicycle messenger boys. These kids played a vital role in the country’s communication system, delivering items for around 25 cents a day. The work took kids out of classrooms and into dangerous “redlight” districts of the city, where the young boys were commonly exposed to prostitution houses and other unsavory environments.
Hine’s documented countless other instances of children working in factories, textile mills, and coal mines. Kids as young as four years old were weaving cloth, making glass, picking crops, selling newspapers, among other jobs. It was not uncommon for these kids to work night shifts lasting 12 hours.


• Help kids appreciate the privilege of education and playtime by inviting them to watch a slideshow of Hine’s historical photographs, which served to bring about social change and revamp American labor laws. A great site for viewing these images is shorpy.com.

• Help kids make a newspaper with interviews of neighbors talking about their jobs. Get them some newsie caps and have them sell the newspapers in front of the house, like a lemonade stand.

• Encourage kids to make cards thanking the unsung workers that affect their everyday lives. Take them to deliver their cards in person. For nearby places, kids can honor their Western Union bicycle messengers of yore by loading their cards into a courier bag, and delivering them on bikes.

2. Watch a movie.

Cozy up on the couch with some popcorn for one of these movies that celebrate the many faces of the American worker. But don’t just zone out. Use the movies to launch lively discussions about what makes a job a good job or a bad job; career dreams (theirs and yours) and how to fulfill them; at what age a kid should be allowed to work; the role of labor unions; and so on. Here’s a list of movies to get the talk started:

• Newsies (1992) Newspaper boys in New York City rebel against exploitation by big business. (musical based on the newsboy strike of 1899).

• The Pajama Game (1957) Doris Day works in a pajama factory where workers are demanding a pay raise and falls in love with the superintendent hired to oppose the demands.

• Tucker – The Man and His Dream (1988) Maverick car designer Preston Tucker challenges the auto industry with a new car idea.

• On the Waterfront (1954) Marlon Brando plays a longshoreman and ex prizefighter who stands up to the corruption of union bosses.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Based on the classic novel by John Steinbeck, this movie follows a poor, homeless Midwest family forced off their land and heading to California during the Great Depression.

3. Tour a factory.

What better way to celebrate the iconic American worker than to see firsthand what these laborers do in an actual, working factory? Apart from appreciating workers’ skills, kids get to see how things are made–a big bonus in today’s culture of maker-mania. Some factories even give out freebies at the end of their tours. Plenty of factories in Houston and the surrounding areas offer tours. Here’s a sampling.

• Mrs. Baird’s Bakery- free.
This is a great, free tour, and the smell of fresh-baked bread can’t be beat!
Tours available Wednesday and Thursdays at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Two week notice required.
6650 N. Houston – Rosslyn Rd, Houston, TX 77091

• Pape’s Pecan Company
Tour the facility, pecan orchard, and collection of more than 3,000 antique pecan crackers. You’ll see the harvesting, processing, and packaging of pecans. The harvest begins in September and continues through December. Processing continues through May.
Tour times vary; call for current schedule.
Highway 101 South, Seguin, TX 78155

• SAS Shoe Factory and General Store
Tour one of the few remaining shoe factories in the U.S. and observe first-hand, the craftsmanship needed to make SAS comfort shoes. Browse in our turn-of-the-century General Store where you’ll find treasures for all ages and occasions. Savor the best ice cream in town while swiveling on 1920’s soda fountain stools from Woolworth’s Five and Dime.
Monday thru Thursday 9:15, 12:30, 2:05. For tour reservations and information please call: 210-921-8103
101 New Laredo Hwy, San Antonio, TX 78221

• Johnson Space Center
Take a tour of Space Center Houston, the Official Visitor’s Center of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Tram tours take guests behind the scenes and visit various sites including the X-38 Assembly Building.Summer – June 10am-7pm, July 9am-7pm, August 10am-5pm, 10am-7pm Weekends

Winter – Mon-Fri – 10am-5pm Sat-Sun 10am-6pm

Tour length varies depending on building availability but ranges from 60 to 90 minutes. Johnson Space Center, 1601 NASA Road 1, Houston, TX 77058

4. Play a Game.

For the family that loves to gather ‘round, team up, and play charades or Pictionary, make the game “Labor-intensive” with printable “occupation” cards. Here’s a link to a free downloadable set: https://app.box.com/shared/q1qj8yu6v8lu0pv1nve2

5. Shop Local.

Explain to kids that when a company outsources its manufacturing to other countries, the American worker suffers at the hands of massive factory layoffs. To make the current impact more tangible for young minds, challenge your kids to a game of “Where’s it Made?” Supply them with notepads and pens and send them on a hunt around the house for “Made in the USA” labels. Have them keep a running tally of the number of American made products in your house. It could be interesting to have them note in another column in what countries other household items were manufactured. Discuss the option of replacing these items with their American made counterparts.

6. Read a Book.

Whatever the age of your kids, you can find a suitable, age-appropriate book that will fill their souls, spark their imaginations, and fuel their dreams with the spirit of Labor Day.

• Night Shift, Jessica Heartland, describes the work of various evening workers (donut makers, late night djs, bridge painters, window dressers) and how their work eventually touches each other. (ages 4-7)

• Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county and lived in the segregated South of the 1920’s, where most people were sharecroppers. He lived for the day when he could open his very own barbershop. But it was a long time, and many setbacks. (ages 4-7)

• The Tortilla Factory, Gary Paulsen, “pays tribute to a cycle of life–from seed to plant to tortilla. Workers till the black soil, operate the clanking machinery of the factory, and drive the trucks that deliver the tortillas back into the hands that will plant the yellow seeds.” (School Library Journal) (ages 6-9)

• Kids on Strike!, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, documents how from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the cotton mills of New England, children worked long hours every day under stunningly inhumane conditions. After years and years of oppression, children began to organize and make demands for better wages, fairer housing costs, and safer working environments. (ages 10-12)

• Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, Russell Freedman, Photobiography of Lewis Hine, using his own work as illustrations of children at work. (ages 10 and up)

• Counting on Grace, Elizabeth Winthrop, At 12, Grace and her best friend Arthur must leave school and go to work as a “doffers” on their mothers’ looms in the mill. But Grace is left handed, and doffing is a right-handed job. Grace’s every mistake costs her mother, and the family. (ages 8-12)

• The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. (teens-adults)

• A Thumbnail History of the City of Houston, From its Founding in 1836 to 1912, Samuel Oliver Young, as the title suggests, lays out the intricate tapestry of Houston’s origins, of which the true-blue worker played an integral part (adults)

7. Fund a USA product.

If you like to watch “Shark Tank,” you’ll love this idea. Have the family pick a Made in the USA product that needs crowdfunding. Visit USA Lovelist for a list of opportunities, and be a part of returning our country to a nation of makers. http://www.usalovelist.com/made-in-usa-crowdfunding-projects/

8. Have a Career parade.

Help the kids dress up as whatever they want to be when they grow up. Then march them down the street or through the neighborhood. To add some extra fun, you can back up the parade with a boombox playing classic work-related songs, like “Whistle While You Work,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Explain to the kids beforehand that workers in the fields Workers in the fields used to sing about their jobs to make the time go faster. They can do the same with their chores!