Labor Day: A Celebration Of American Workers

Labor Day: A Celebration Of American Workers

September 01, 2016 | American History

Ask any American about Labor Day and you will evoke images of summer's end. Family barbecues, wistful last carefree days at the community swimming pool, football fans sporting their favorite players' jerseys as they anticipate the season's kickoff are all surrounded by a hint of approaching Fall. We all make the most of the closing days of summer, marked by this federal holiday.

How Labor Day Began

If you ask anyone how the holiday began, however, you are not likely to find people well informed. Our focus is usually on the parades and fireworks, the time with our family. Labor Day does have an interesting history, despite our lack of awareness. The celebration began in a small, localized way in 1882 with an organized parade in New York City. It is only fair to note that the idea for this event may have been borrowed from Canada where a similar celebration is also held in September. Backers here, in any case, made it our own. Credit for the holiday, however, is generally given to Peter McGuire who is said to have proposed the celebration during a labor meeting. Some controversy exists as there are those historians who claim that the thought was first voiced by a machinist named Matthew Maguire.

Labor Day began as a project of the labor unions who wanted to enhance the public's awareness of the work of the trade and labor organizations, to celebrate their important contributions to the nation's growing economy and to pay tribute to the workers whose efforts made both the unions and America strong. Original plans called for a parade, followed by festivities meant to entertain the workers and their families. As the event got under way, people were slow to show up and some concern existed initially that workers would not want to give up a day's work to celebrate. By day's end, however, over 10,000 people had spilled into the streets to march in the parade, putting to rest the organizers' fears.

In 1884 the Central Labor Union designated the first Monday in September to become the recognized "workingmen's holiday." Despite overwhelmingly positive response, the celebration of Labor Day did not receive recognition as a national holiday until 1896. In the years following that New York festival, the practice spread slowly across the country, with Oregon claiming fame as the first state to designate it a holiday. Finally, in 1896 President Grover Cleveland established the first Monday in September as a federal holiday.

Tradgedy Play a Role In Holiday's Creation

A little recognized catalyst leading to the holiday's creation was a nationwide railroad strike. Known as the Pullman Strike, it eventually closed down a large part of the nation's western railroad traffic. Before it was settled, federal marshals and the Army killed 30 striking Pullman workers. It was shortly after this walkout ended that President Cleveland chose to establish a national labor holiday as part of his efforts to quiet the unrest of laborers across the country. Legislation to make it official was hurried through Congress in just six days.

The day in September was chosen, in part, to provide an extra holiday during the long stretch between the 4th of July (Independence Day) and Thanksgiving. In its early years, Labor Day was very much a community effort. The parade was just one piece of a day-long agenda that included patriotic speeches given by civic leaders. Organized games, music and a whirl of socializing filled the hours. Changes in American's lifestyles have brought about variations in the celebrations and many families now extend the one-day holiday to a mini-vacation, using the long weekend for trips and sporting activities.

A Day To Remember The Acheivements of the American Workforce

As we enjoy the leisure time this holiday provides, we should be aware of the changes in labor laws and practices that have occurred since the days when the unions first proposed this celebration. According to local Colorado news station KUSA-TV, during the Industrial Revolution the average American worked 12 hours a day and seven days a week and many factory workers were as young as five or six years of age. These are startling statistics from our past.

As we enjoy our end-of-summer time off, we should remember to pay tribute to the hardworking men and women who have made all this possible. Celebrate those who now work to preserve our futures as well as recognize those who set it in motion over 100 years ago.