KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Labor Day is often considered the unofficial end of summer, but as the name suggests the day is meant to celebrate American laborers.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making Labor Day a federal holiday. Prior to Labor Day becoming a federal holiday, the Central Labor Union held the first celebration in New York City in 1882. The role of unions has grown throughout the years.

“It is really important for working people to be able to organize collectively for better working conditions and better pay and that is what they’ve done throughout history,” said Beau Hawk, the recording secretary with the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Central Labor Council. “Especially in this area, there’s a lot of history for a lot of the unions here.”

Rules surrounding unions can vary from state to state. Tennessee is a right-to-work state and has been since 1947. In 2022, Tennessee voters approved an amendment that added a right-to-work provision in the state’s constitution.

“Right to work is you don’t have to participate in a union if it represents you,” Hawk said. “We could be getting you this awesome collective bargaining agreement where you get all of these great benefits, but people can just opt out, and basically work at that and enjoy all of the benefits of it without having to chip in at all.”

Throughout history, unions have continued to change and grow throughout the years. Hawks remain hopeful of the future surrounding unions in East Tennessee.

“There’s a lot of union organizing in town,” Hawk said. “I’m really excited about the future. I think we are going to continue to grow, get more union density in Tennessee, and just better lives for workers.”