Labor Day is coming up on Monday, marking the unofficial end of the summer (except not for my family – we’re going on a cruise next week!).
Labor Day is a day off from work, a day for grilling and friends, a day to celebrate. But what are we really celebrating? What is Labor Day supposed to be all about?
Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?
Throughout the history of America, workers have made enormous sacrifices to fight for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. The battle has often been violent. We can all thank labor unions for the cushy conditions in which most of us work today.
Labor Day officially began in the United States almost 150 years ago when union members proposed a day to be set apart to recognize the contribution American workers had made to the the country.
The first Labor Day celebration took place on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City and was organized by the Central Labor Union of New York. The Central Labor Union was a conglomerate of all the different unions in the city, like a city council of sorts. It pulled together many disparate groups with the same purpose – to improve the conditions of the city’s workers.
Participating in the first Labor Day was a real risk for workers. They had to take a day without pay to attend the parade and festival; onlookers jeered them from the sidewalk as they marched by. But in the end, between 10,000 and 20,000 workers participated in that first parade and even more watched or attended the festival that followed.
A second observance occurred a year later, on September 5, 1883. By 1884, the first Monday in September had been selected by the Central Labor Union, and the union encouraged similar organizations in other cities to follow their lead and celebrate a “working man’s holiday” on the same date. The idea spread quickly with the growth of labor unions, and the holiday was being observed – unofficially – across the country by 1885.
In 1887, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado were the first states to make Labor Day an official holiday and just seven years later, the federal government adopted it as a national holiday to recognize the contributions that workers had made to the strength, prosperity, laws, and well-being of the country.
Labor Day, an Official Holiday
Congress approved the bill to make Labor Day an official federal holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law just six days after dozens of striking union members were killed by the US Army in Chicago (at the president’s direction incidentally – this is a very interesting event to read about).
In the early days, Labor Day was a real celebration. There were speeches from important people, a parade, and a festival for workers and their families featuring picnics, dancing and fireworks.
Today, there are still a few parades leftover (the New York City parade continues as well as parades in other large and small cities), and this year the #unionstrong hashtag will be in full force.
Labor Day Today
But more often than not, Labor Day is a weekend spent at the beach or celebrating a last hurrah before the grind of the fall sets in. Many schools start back either the week before or the week after Labor Day, and most fall sports including collegiate and professional football begin the week after.
Nonetheless, Labor Day maintains its goal – to give the American worker a day of rest and relaxation, and to recognize him (or her!) for the contribution that he makes to our great nation.
Now that you’ve read a history lesson on this American holiday, tell me. . .what are YOUR Labor Day plans this year?