The History of Labor Day and What It Means Today

Labor Day is on Monday, September 3, 2018. Before you celebrate by running off to your nearest beach, you may want to know how this holiday was started.

The history of Labor Day, originally tied to the "dignity of workers", underscores the uphill climb U.S. clock-punchers and career professionals have had for the past 100-plus years.

From mail room attendant to coal miners to office secretaries and more, the story of Labor Day is not only one of celebration, but of bloodshed and sacrifice, as well, as those workers from generations past paid a steep price for advancing the cause of labor for generations to come.

The History of Labor Day

Labor Day, celebrated in the U.S. on the first Monday of September each year, is a national holiday signed into law in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, although the holiday was celebrated in some cities and states during the previous decade.

In fact, the first "workingman's holiday" was enacted by New York City, and celebrated in 1882, and was highlighted by a street parade, and speeches from labor union leaders. The early September holiday date was already in effect in New York City that year, and was done so by design. Labor leaders wanted Labor Day festivities to coincide with a conference held by the Knights of Labor, a powerful union group.

Oregon was the first state to recognize the social and economic achievements of the U.S. labor force, passing its own holiday bill in 1887. Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey soon followed during the same year.

By the time President Cleveland signed a national Labor Day holiday into law, 23 U.S. states had formally endorsed their own Labor Day holiday, paving the way for what would become a distinctly American day of celebrating its rapidly burgeoning workforce.

The Meaning Behind Labor Day

National labor leaders had a separate goal in mind besides celebrating the great American worker with a day of honor.

As the 1800's drew to a close, U.S. labor organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Central Labor Union were having trouble gathering members. While there was a growing network of smaller unions appearing on the U.S. landscape, they weren't unified, and really had no way to do so.

Into the breach stepped the larger unions based in New York City, who came up with a brilliant idea - gather as many of the smaller unions in one place at one time, and work to band them together for the common good of the American worker. The mechanism for doing so? The first Labor Day parade on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

When workers arrived in New York and met with labor leaders and other workers, they found all had several big issues in common - longer working hours (often 60 hours-per-week), low wages, and unsafe working conditions, among other issues.

Soon after, the U.S. labor movement took wing and began fighting hard for benefits that many current workers often take for granted now, over 130 years later.

Five Little-Known Facts About Labor Day

  • Labor Day co-existed with another workforce-themed holiday, called International Workers Day, launched after a violent demonstration between workers and police in Chicago in 1886, with multiple fatalities. That holiday, celebrated in May (and known widely as "May Day"), is still celebrated today.
  • There is no single founder of Labor Day, although many historians point to Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, as a driving force for the new holiday. Others tap Matthew Maguire, the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., who first came up with the idea of Labor Day, proposing it in 1882.
  • During the first recorded Labor Day celebration in New York City in 1882, 20,000 people were in attendance, many of them quaffing beer, according to historians - but workers had to give up a day's pay to attend the festivities.
  • While President Cleveland signed Labor Day into law, the congressional bill that led him to do so (Bill S. 730), was first introduced by Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota.
  • Even though Labor Day is widely viewed as a distinctly American holiday, the idea for it was hatched in Canada, where government and labor officials banded together to hold a one-day, "nine-hour movement" to back striking Canadian workers in 1872.

Labor Day Today

While Labor Day can't be directly credited for achieving the laws that resulted from these issues, especially the eight-hour-workday and the six-day workweek that started appearing in the late 1800's, it can be given credit for putting workers and labor leaders together to meet and identify common goals, and to start working to achieve better working conditions.

Those efforts have paid off over the years and still do so today. Certainly, most American workers today can count on more humane working conditions, fewer hours on the job, more pay and benefits, and more days off.

If you work at a job that offers good pay, solid health and wellness benefits, a growing retirement plan, reasonable hours, and upward mobility, give special thanks on Labor Day to those workers who came before them for the rights of all workers (and risked bloodshed to do so), and paved the way for better workplace conditions for all Americans.

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