The History of Labor Day in the United States

Working Americans and families love our holidays.  For breadwinners, it is a welcome respite from work and a long three-day weekend, for kids, a day off from school, and for the family, a time to all be together and celebrate.  Some holidays are more recognizable and celebrated with traditional reverence and customs such as Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day.  Some holidays are internationally celebrated while others are uniquely American.  

Labor Day is a uniquely American holiday. Sadly though, Labor Day is more commonly associated with the end of summer, back to school, the last barbecue of the summer…and the changing of the seasons.  Although Labor Day is officially a National Holiday, it is generally only government institutions and those regulated by the government such as banks that are closed.  Most private industry is open thus much of the countries “laborers” … must work on their holiday.

The origins and beginnings of Labor Day and it’s significance in American culture dates back nearly 200 years.  America was an agricultural, fishing, and seagoing economy in her formative years.  Fishing, whaling, and farming were a dangerous and labor-intensive necessity for the survival of a new nation.  Over ensuing decades America’s demand for industrialization and self sufficiency spawned what we now commonly recognize as the Industrial Revolution in America.  The demands for growth and economic viability led to factories and the manufacture of goods, machinery and infrastructure of a new and rapidly growing population and society.  This of course, meant huge labor requirements to man factories, tradesmen to build infrastructure and labor to operate all of it.  Post-Revolutionary War America was booming and needed manpower…and childpower, tomeet demand.

In early Colonial days, the only time clock available to family farmers, ranchers and fishermen was the rising and setting sunand entire families worked the land and sea for survival.  Newly minted American work ethic was instilled from the very beginning; thus, it was not a stretch that transitioning from farm to factory entailed long hours for both man and child.  

As the Industrial Revolution and innovation in all aspects of culture and society took hold, America’s thirst for manufactured goods and services exploded exponentially mandating more capacity and longer work hours for the labor force.  One aspect of this stunning growth that didn’t necessarily keep pace with innovation, were the rights and working conditions of laborers both young and old.  

By the mid to late 1800’s an ample supply of laborers kept companies and economies booming, while wages and conditions stagnated, and even declined.  Americans began to see inequities in society and a widening gap between the prosperity of workers and factory owners.  Thus, the era or organized labor was rooted.  

 The beginnings of organized labor in America was understandably tenuous, controversial, violent, and fraught with conspiracy and distrust.   Labor demanded better wages and working conditions while ownership was content with the control and wealth that such conditions brought.  The history of violence, strikes, work stoppages, sabotage, and death in the long pursuit of labor rights is well documented and is a struggle that continues to this day. 

There is widespread disagreement as to who is the actual Founder of Labor Day as we know it today.  Oddly enough, the two men attributed to founding Labor Day had very similar names, backgrounds, and history in the fight for better wages and working conditions… Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire. Both men hailed from New York where they both had their early starts in the formal organization of the labor movement.  Peter J. McGuire formed the New York chapter of the International Workingmen’s Association before moving to the Midwest and founding the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Union (FOTLU) which ultimately became the AFL-CIO as we know it today.  Matthew Maguire was Secretary of the New York Central Labor Union and responsible for much of the unionization of eastern labor.  

The very first “Labor Day Parade” on September 5, 1882 was not actually a formal holiday parade at all, as Labor Day didn’t become a national holiday until President Grover Cleveland signed it into law 12 years later on June 28, 1894.  Attribution to the very first Labor Day parade is given to both men, albeit their respective organizations each neglect to mention the other as having any involvement.  

It was Matthew Maguire however who in May of 1882 called for all of the 56 unions in the area to make a “public show of organized strength” and attend a “Mammoth Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic” set for Tuesday September 5, 1882.  The morning of the parade only 80 union members had showed up at City Hall.  Ultimately, throughout the morning and along the parade route, members from countless unions joined in with members, marching bands, and wagons showcasing the fruits of the various unions labor.  The parade wound up at Elm Park complete with a dance pavilion, a huge beer garden, playgrounds, and picnic areas where it is estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people attended the Festival.  The tradition of parades, beer, picnics, and parties carries forward to this day.  

Like much in our constantly evolving culture and society, the true meaning and respect for Labor Day in our culture is waning.  Given that the vast majority of Americans are in the labor force rather than the entrepreneurial side of productivity in this country, it should be a day of self-recognition and great honor for it is we the people who make this country work each and every day, generation after generation.   

America has always been a land of opportunity where for centuries, people the world over have come for chance at the American Dream.  That dream exists not only because of a class that has the wealth and ability to create opportunity for a better society… but because of the enormous class of hard working men and women seeking a piece of the American pie, and the fulfillment and pride of an honest day’s work in exchange for an honest day’s pay.  One entity cannot exist without the other…thus Labor Day is and should always be the day we honor and cherish the work and achievement of those who manufacture and produce all that we cherish so dearly with life in America.  

Featured Image Credit: mohamed_hassan  / Pixabay
In Post Image credit:  The U.S. National Archives

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