This September 2nd marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day being celebrated as a national holiday. While the word “Labor” is in the name, most people see Labor Day as their last chance to enjoy the freedom of summer. It marks the end of vacation and the beginning of the school year.
The Department of Labor said on their website, “The character of the Labor Day celebration has changed in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression.”
The History of Labor Day
One thing is clear about the founding of Labor Day. In 1882, the Central Labor Union in New York adopted a Labor Day proposal that included a picnic and demonstration. But there are questions about who the founder was. Many people believe this suggestion came from Matthew Maguire, who was serving as the Central Labor Union secretary at that time.
However, other records indicate Peter J. McGuire, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first to suggest a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Government recognition started at the municipal level a few years later. Fittingly, since the Central Labor Union held the original event, the first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature. But Oregon beat out New York by passing their bill on February 21st, 1887. New York did officially pass theirs later that same year, along with Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
By 1894, 23 more states had legislated Labor Day, but it was still not a national holiday. It took a major event later that year to bring workers’ rights to the front of the national conversation. On May 11th, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. The situation was agitated when the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars.
The federal government chose to break the strike by sending troops to Chicago. This triggered a wave of riots and resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. In the wake of the disaster, Congress recognized the need to repair ties with American workers. To attempt to calm the nation-wide unrest, they passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. That act was signed into law on June 28th, 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. He declared the first Monday in September a national holiday for the “workingmen” of America.
Original observances of Labor Day included street parades to exhibit the strength and spirit of the labor organizations. This was followed by a festival that had amusements geared toward workers and their families. Much like Labor Day celebrations today, the holiday was seen as a time to take a day off of work to have fun with your family and friends.
Later, communities and governments tried to place more emphasis on an economic and civic focus. Prominent members of the community gave speeches, and a bit of the “fun” gave way to a more rigid program with social agendas.
Today, it seems that most people don’t know the details of Labor Day’s history, yet they have brought the observance back to its original intent. The Department of Labor states that Labor Day “constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
Most communities no longer have parades or special festivals, and workers have replaced those activities with individually chosen ways to relax and connect with their loved ones. Recognizing history is important, but the biggest indicator that Labor Day served its purpose may be the fact that the average employee no longer feels Labor Day needs to include a demonstration for their rights. It has truly become a day of enjoyment for the American worker.