Labor Day in America

Always the first Monday in September, Labor Day celebrates the economic and social contributions and achievements of American workers.  There is some confusion about who actually came up with the idea for the holiday.  Peter J. McGuire, the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Union are the two most likely candidates.

Labor Day was created at the height of the Industrial Revolution when people worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, just to eke out a basic living.  Children as young as five years of age were routinely employed, earning just a fraction of adult wages.

Unsafe working conditions, lack of fresh air, unsanitary conditions, the lack of breaks, and poor wages were among the many reasons that labor unions began to form in the late 18th century, as manufacturing supplanted agriculture.  Many violent protests followed throughout the years.

On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid leave to march the streets of New York City in the first Labor Day Parade.  The parade route was marked by speakers and union representatives and culminated in a festival honoring the workers.  This “working mans’ holiday” caught on across the United States.  Oregon was the first state to actually celebrate Labor Day in 1887.  By the time Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, 30 states had already begun officially celebrating the day each year.  The September date was chosen rather than the date of International Workers Day, which is celebrated on May 1st each year, due to concerns that the holiday would be associated with the newly emerging Communist movement.

It took 12 years for Labor Day to win official recognition as a federal holiday.  In May of 1894, the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of their union representative.  In retaliation, the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman rail cars, which crippled railroad traffic across the United States.  The US government sent troops to break the strike which lead to more riots and the deaths of more than a dozen protestors.

In Congress’ attempt to repair their relationship with US workers, they passed the act to create the national holiday for working people – Labor Day.

As we approach Labor Day this year and you are feeling a sense of gratitude for much improved working conditions everywhere, taking a quick trip to the beach or planning a cookout, don’t forget to put away those white shoes, straw hats and seersucker suits for more suitable fall attire.  After all, Labor Day also marks the kick-off of the college and professional football seasons!

~ Julie Morris ~

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