Though we often think of Labor Day weekend as an opportunity to celebrate the last hurrah of summer and the start of school, it began with a far different purpose. Labor Day has been a holiday in the US since the first one was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. This day was set aside to recognize the achievements of American workers and was originally organized by the Central Labor Union in New York. This group also celebrated on the same date the following year. By 1985, Labor Day was observed in industrial centers across the country as a “workingmen’s holiday.”
The actual “father” of this idea has been debated since the holiday began. Two men are recognized as the potential first originators, and the truth will never be resolved as they were from different unions and had no idea they were starting a national holiday. One was Peter Maguire, an official in the American Federation of Labor, and the other was Matthew Maguire (no relation), a machinist from the Knights of Labor. This created quite a rivalry between the two unions and is still debated.
The first celebrations consisted of a parade of unions to show the strength and pride of the labor organizations. This was followed by an enormous party for the enjoyment of workers and their families. Later, speeches were added to emphasize the importance of the labor force, both economically and for the building up of the community. By 1909, a convention of the American Federation of Labor added the Sunday before Labor Day as Labor Sunday. This was a day to highlight the spiritual and educational qualities of the labor movement.
In 1894, after a number of states enacted legislation to recognize the holiday, the U.S. Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. The bill was introduced by Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota during the presidency of Grover Cleveland, and was made law on June 28, 1894.
The Rest of the Story
While the descriptions above sound quite civilized, there was another side to the national holiday. Until Labor Day became official, there was a conflict between Labor Day in September and International Worker’s Day, observed on May 1. This May holiday began in remembrance of the Haymarket Affair which occurred on May 4, 1886. When protesters assembled in Chicago over the demand for an 8-hour workday, it became violent, with a bomb thrown toward police killing one officer and injuring others. The police then shot into the crowd resulting in the death of an undetermined number of protesters. Because of this violent history, President Cleveland made the September observance the official Labor Day. Even so, International Worker’s Day is still unofficially celebrated in the US on May 1. In an interview with NPR, Jonathan Cutler, associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan, said, “May Day has always been linked to the demand for less work and more pay; Labor Day celebrates the ‘dignity’ of work.”
As we celebrate Labor Day weekend, 134 year after that first parade, let us take time to remember the American worker. These men and women, past and present, built our country through hard work, ingenuity, and dedication to a better life for all. This is truly cause for celebration!