Labor Day is a federal holiday that takes place on the first Monday in September, at the end of the long weekend known as Labor Day weekend.
What is Labor Day and why do we celebrate it?
It is a holiday in tribute to American workers and their social and economic contribution to society. It recognizes and shows respect for organized labor, and the individual rights of workers.
The History of Labor Day
In the late nineteenth century, working conditions were poor. The Industrial Revolution meant machines could run all hours, and this brought about 16-hour workdays, 7 days a week. Even Children as young as 5 could be found working in factories. This resulted in the labor movement in the United States: More and more unions were formed, and these organized strikes to improve workers' rights. Employers refused to grant 8-hour working days, and strikes often became violent.
The labor movement also led to a day for workers, Labor Day, although there is some dispute over who its real “father” is. Two main individuals are credited:
Peter McGuire was the general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (one of the largest unions of the time), and vice-president of the American Federation of Labor. He is said to have proposed the initial idea in 1882 to the Central Labor Union (CLU). He wanted the day to be a “general holiday for the laboring classes.” He recommended September 5 because it was halfway between Independence Day on July 4 and Thanksgiving Day in late November. He suggested a street parade to show solidarity and strength.
The Knights of Labor, the largest and most important American labor federation at the time, gave their sponsorship.
Matthew Maguire was a machinist, a secretary, and a leading figure in the CLU. He was a radical member of the Socialist Labor Party. He is also said to have suggested the idea in 1882, and called on the 56 unions around New York to put on “a public show of organized strength."
From the first Labor Day to a Federal Holiday
On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, around 10,000 workers marched from Union Square to City Hall. The Knights of Labor passed a resolution to hold each subsequent holiday on the first Monday of September. Thus, Labor Day was born. Oregon was the first state to adopt Labor Day as an official public holiday in 1887. By 1894, 30 states were observing the day.
Beginning in May 1894, there was a series of unemployed workers' riots. In June, the Pullman Strike (a nationwide rail strike) resulted in the deaths of protesters at the hand of the United States Army and Marshal Service.
Amid this crisis, and 6 days after the strikes, Congress passed a bill, which was signed by President Grover Cleveland, to declare Labor Day a federal holiday. The bill is said to have drawn attention away from May Day, which was established on socialist movements, and to keep the support of American workers.
Many other countries have also established a holiday to celebrate their workers, however, outside of the US it is common to be celebrated at the start of May rather than September to coincide with the start of Spring, and often Labor Day is also known as May Day.
Labor Day weekend: when is it and what does it mean?
Since Labor Day is a federal holiday and falls on a Monday, most businesses and schools are closed. As such, the preceding weekend is known as Labor Day weekend where many American workers all over the US take the opportunity of not having to work to extend the celebrations.
Some choose to take a long weekend trip before the start of school to one of the cities hosting celebrations such as Atlanta to watch the street parades, firework displays, or participate in events, while others simply choose to spend time closer to home by having a party with a BBQ or picnic with family and friends. It's also a common time for stores to hold sales, so there truly is a diverse range of activities to celebrate and enjoy this holiday.
For sports fans, Labor Day weekend is also considered the start of the football season which sees the NFL (National Football League) kickoff their schedule, usually on the Thursday after Labor Day.
Just as Memorial Day is unofficially seen to mark the start of summer, Labor Day weekend also means the end of summer for many. This is, in part, thought to be where the age-old saying that you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day comes from as the warmer months of wearing lighter clothing have drawn to a close.