The History of Labor Day in the U.S.

The first Labor Day Parade was held on September 5th, 1882 in New York City, marked by ten thousand workers who marched on strike from their 70-hour work weeks.

Now it is celebrated on the first Monday of every September, and marked by end-of-summer barbecues and family get-togethers.

In the decades leading up to the first Labor Day, manufacturing workers in America would often be putting in 10-hour days, seven days a week. They received little to no days off and were ferociously underpaid. Labor Day came about when the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor decided to stand against the mistreatment of blue-collar workers in New York. Their goal was to reach out to small unions, already a rare breed, and organize them together to create a larger, more formidable force.  

In order to bring this event to fruition, workers had to declare a one-day strike from their jobs. They assembled for a parade and for food and drink afterwards. They wanted to establish their common interests, such as their desired eight-hour work day, and make a movement for better working conditions.

The strikers had support from many white-collar businessmen, who, in the face of the expanding U.S. economy, were in favor of workers having time off to become consumers of their products and services.

Oregon was the first state to make it into an official holiday in 1887, and in June 1894, former President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law. This gave only federal government workers the day off, but eventually all states followed suit. Even though Labor Day is recognized across America, most stores and restaurants remain open and busy for the big sales weekend; national parks are still in service; government jobs in protection and transportation must be filled. A lot of people still labor on Labor Day — the real change is in the laws and protections that now shield us. 

The average American works just under 45 hours and has at least two days off a week. It’s a stark contrast from the 70 hours toiled by employees from the first Labor Day Parade, which was less than 200 years ago. Their sacrifice paved the road to the working force we know today. 

“The end of labor is to gain leisure,” said Aristotle

Canada celebrates Labor Day at the same time we do, but more than 80 countries celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1st — what we know in America as May Day. In 1886 it emerged as an alternative to the Labor Day march, and is famous for a worker’s strike that turned violent. In the busy Chicago rally vying for shorter work days, a dynamite bomb was thrown at the police attempting to end the meeting. Seven officers and four civilians were killed, with dozens more injured. Although September officially became the home of Labor Day, May Day remains subject to riots and protests.

Labor Day is a weekend of celebration that generally centers around general enjoyment; it symbolizes the unofficial end of summer, and the start of school for many students. It also marks the beginning of sports seasons for organizations such as the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and is the placeholder of events like the Southern 500 NASCAR races and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships.

American culture has fully embraced Labor Day festivities. While you enjoy the sports, food, and fun, try to remember the thousands of union workers who fought for your rights this September 3rd.  

Resource

“Labor Day.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day.

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