Labor Day: Idea to Federal Holiday

Labor Day
Factory worker

Labor Day is an annual federal holiday in the United States. The actual calendar day changes from year to year, but it is always the first Monday of September. To most school children, it is another day when there is no school. As they get older, they learn it has something to do with honoring those who labor. Some people are working on Labor Day; others have the day off. Some are enjoying fun activities with family while others listen to speeches. This poses the question of what exactly is Labor Day?

The workers in factories, on assembly lines or at construction sites, did not always earn their living in a safe and healthy environment. They endured long hours, dim lighting, poor wages, health hazards from prolonged exposure to poor sanitation and injuries from machinery and explosives. They continued to manufacture clothing, furniture, railroad ties, steam engines and many other items while working in often hazardous conditions.

As a tribute to those hardworking individuals, a Labor Day proposal was accepted by the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882. It isn’t clear if Peter J. McGuire, who co-founded the American Federation of Labor, or a machinist, Matthew Maguire, proposed the idea. Both have been credited by various groups. The fact, though, is that the Central Labor Union reserved September 5, 1882, Tuesday, as a day for a picnic and demonstration for workers. By 1884, the holiday had been moved to the first Monday of September, and was celebrated by other unions and organizations throughout the United States.

Having a designated day for Labor Day was gaining popularity throughout the country. Even though New York was the first state to be presented with such a bill, Oregon was first to pass it on February 21, 1887. Four more states, including New York, enacted legislation by the end of that year. It became a federal holiday on June 28, 1894.

The initial 1882 proposal specified how the day should be celebrated. A parade would highlight the strength and spirit of those who were members of labor and trade organizations within the community. Following that, recreational festivities would provide enjoyment for the workers and their families, including children. A few years later, speeches from union, civic and government leaders became part of the day’s activities. Beginning in 1909, the Sunday before Labor Day was designated as Labor Sunday, a time to reflect on labor’s educational and spiritual aspects.

Labor Day is a day set aside to honor those who, according to a statement Peter J. McGuire made over 100 years ago, “have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Part of that celebration includes parades and picnics.

Written by: Cynthia Collins

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