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What is Labor Day?

By Holly South | Last updated on

Labor Day is near, which means that you can start to make plans for an extended weekend and enjoy a day off from work. It is also a time to celebrate the contributions workers have made to building the nation. The federal holiday, which is the first Monday of September, is marked by closed courts, schools, and workplaces.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the holiday is "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." Champions for employment rights have improved the lives of working Americans by pushing for strong labor laws and effective labor unions.

The History of Labor Day

Labor Day came to be during the height of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s following a long push by those involved in the labor movement. The United States labor movement grew out of the need to protect American workers' common interests. It also sought to end child labor, provide health benefits to employees, and implement workers' compensation and retirement benefits.

The movement originated during the late colonial period, with the first recorded strike occurring in 1786. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade unionization by American workers. The short story of the labor movement is that it started with trade labor unions and eventually grew to include all types of labor in a movement for fair working conditions.

The Maguire/McGuire Debate

The creation of Labor Day is often credited to Peter J. McGuire, who suggested the idea to the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882. McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and, with Samuel Gompers, was a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), each of the organizations organizing strikes in 1886 and 1890. His efforts are said to have led to today's working conditions, such as the average eight-hour workday and five-day workweek.

However, evidence has emerged more recently that Matthew Maguire (note the difference in spelling) may be the actual father of Labor Day. Maguire was known to have led several strikes throughout the 1870s. In 1882, he became one of the leading figures of the New York Central Labor Union and suggested Labor Day celebrations in the same year. However, Gompers believed that due to Maguire's more "radical" political views, he shouldn't be associated with the labor movement or Labor Day. So when interviewed later, Gompers credited the first labor day celebrations to Peter J. McGuire.

The Pullman Strike

One of the biggest sparks for the national celebration of labor was the Pullman strikes, which ended in bloodshed — at least 30 employees dead and many more injured. In 1893, George Pullman laid off hundreds of his Pullman Palace Car Company employees and cut wages for those remaining — all without reducing rent or store prices in his company town.

In 1894, the remaining Pullman employees organized a strike, which was supported by the American Railway Union and led to a complete shut-down of railway traffic in 27 states. This led the General Managers Association to seek federal help to stop the strike.

On June 29, a speech-turned-riot prompted U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney to file for an injunction against the strike and its leaders. After getting the injunction, the National Guard (under orders from President Grover Cleveland) descended upon Chicago, sparking the Pullman Strike to turn into a massacre by July 7, 1894.

The tragedy of the Pullman Strike is what ultimately pushed President Cleveland and Congress to recognize Labor Day as a legal holiday to be observed on the first Monday in September. But that did not mean anything about days off from work.

Labor Day Celebrations

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated with a parade on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, and it became a national holiday on June 28, 1894. By then, however, other cities and some states had been recognizing Labor Day in early September since the first Labor Day parade. Finally, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 solidified today's three-day Labor Day weekend along with Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Washington's Birthday.

Labor Day is often marked by parades, speeches, barbecues, and other celebrations. And for sports fans, Labor Day marks the beginning of the professional and college football seasons. For all other Americans, it is seen as the unofficial end of summer, with school beginning around the same time. During your own Labor Day celebrations, remember why it is that you are celebrating.

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