Who is Working on Labor Day? ‘I Am’ say Immigrant Workers in NYC

Americans generally associate Labor Day with barbecues, picnics and back-to-school department store sales.  It’s easy to forget that the holiday observed on the first Monday of September celebrates the contributions of workers, especially those involved in efforts to create labor unions.

The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York in 1882. It was conceived of as a “monster labor festival,” most of the 10,000 participants took an unpaid day off to march with bands and celebrate with music, beer and fireworks in a park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

These days many New Yorkers celebrate Labor Day by leaving the city for the long holiday weekend. Among those who remain are restaurant workers and small business owners who will be at their jobs on the holiday. Fi2W spoke to a number of immigrant restaurant owners and employees who will be working this Labor Day.

The Shop Owners

Daniel Yang, 56, and Jung Yang, 57, are brothers from South Korea. Daniel, the younger of the two, moved to the U.S. in 1983, and now owns and manages Hudson Grocery and Abingdon Market in the West Village. He works 35 hours a week at Hudson alone, and he spends more than 90 minutes commuting each way to his stores every day. The long hours have taken their toll on Daniel: He was unable to leave his home for a three-month stretch at one point, due to what he called the stress of managing the stores. His older brother Jung, however, brings levity to the business. Jung followed his little brother to the U.S. in 1999, and now works for him. He delights in offering advice to the customers and indulging their interests in the store’s cat Nina. Both brothers will work this upcoming Labor Day holiday. “It’s okay,” Jung said about working on a day that many Americans have off.  “I was off the other day.”

Daniel will work as well, no surprise for someone who devotes so much of his life to his business.  “I feel proud to work on Labor Day,” Daniel said. “People who work on Labor Day should feel proud.”

The Falafel Restaurant Manager

Tall and thin, with a mustache and an easygoing demeanor, Raouf Abada, 34, has been the manager at the Hudson Falafel Restaurant for about a decade. Abada, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, works nine hours a day, five days a week, and he’ll be working this Labor Day, which he doesn’t consider a holiday at all: “It’s the opposite—a holiday about work,” he said. “[People who work] already have the weekends, the vacations, the pensions. [A holiday] should be about something else.”

“Maybe they should make a holiday for people that don’t have jobs. A million people without a job, nobody cares, nobody makes a big deal.

The Start-Up Restaurant

Sabor Unico is in many ways a typical Inwood Dominican fast-food spot, small and bright with beef patties warming under a heat lamp and music playing non-stop. But Sabor Unico has the advantage of a young, media savvy owner in Rafael Gerardo, who maintains an active social media presence for the restaurant through dedicated Facebook and Instagram accounts (@Bombonada).

Gerardo came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was six, and now 20 years later, is one of three owners of the small restaurant. He doesn’t mind working on Labor Day. To him it’s just another day. He has wanted to own a business all his life, and said he knew that food was something that could “evolve quickly.” The business, which opened last year, has seen some early success, and he’s excitedly expecting even more business for the holiday.

The Bakery Manager

Manager Etiandro Herbert says Labor Day is a busy one for his bakery; photo by Miranda Shafer

As a manager at Il Cantuccio, a Northern Italian bakery in New York’s West Village, Portugal native Etiandro Herbert mixes well with his coworkers, almost all of whom are Italian immigrants,  and whom he consider his friends: “I can say it’s my place, too,” Herbert says of the bakery where he spends six to seven days a week.  That heavy workload will most likely include Labor Day.

“We are doing a good thing and we are open most holidays,” he said. “Since we are Europeans, we have a different culture and we are not familiar with Labor Day. Most of the people here [in the bakery] are immigrants. The owners celebrate Italian holidays, but they don’t close the store for Labor Day for another reason: The rent is too high. We can’t stop. One day [of rent] is too much.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutMiranda Shafer
Miranda Shafer is a media studies graduate student at the New School. She has worked for WNYC as a production assistant for Selected Shorts and as a producer for the series "Talk to Me." She likes hot media and cold weather.