A Brief History of Labor Day

Today, we see Labor Day as a day to enjoy the last vestiges of summer. Barbecues, sometimes parades and family outings are generally the way we celebrate Labor Day. We think of entrepreneurs and captains of industry a lot, but we sometimes forget that Labor Day was conceived as a way to honor those working hard jobs — especially factory workers — who, more than 100 years ago, had few rights and very little true leisure time. Here is a brief overview of Labor Day history:

How Labor Day Began

In the 1880s, it was common for factory workers and others involved in the hard labor that made industry possible to organize unions in order to provide themselves with more bargaining power. The first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882, the product of the Central Labor Union’s efforts to provide a demonstration and a picnic for workers and their families. The next year, the Central Labor Union held another Labor Day celebration.

By 1884, the Central Labor Union had selected the first Monday in September to be celebrated as Labor Day, and encouraged other cities, besides New York City, to hold their own celebrations. Between 1885 and 1886, several cities had authorized Labor Day festivities. The first state to pass legislation recognizing Labor Day as a holiday was Oregon, in 1887. More states followed suit, and by 1894 more than half of the states had signed legislation recognizing Labor Day.

Labor Day did not become a national holiday, though, until June 28, 1894. However, the move was not exactly in response to fellow feeling with laborers. Instead, it was more of a rushed response to placate labor unions and workers during the Pullman Strike. Indeed, the act was a rushed affair, calling for a parade so that everyone could see “the strength and espirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

(The Pullman Strike included a boycott of Pullman cars, strikes by Pullman factory workers and other actions that took place along railroad routes, including strikes in major cities like Chicago. These were meant to show solidarity with those living in Pullman, Illinois, a town set up for workers. Even as Pullman cut wages, the rent for living in the town and other costs did not go down. The strike ended when President Grover Cleveland sent U.S. Marshals and U.S. troops to Chicago.)

Labor Day Today

Today, there are few parades left to celebrate Labor Day, although many people get the day off. However, there are still speeches made by government officials, union officials and others extolling the virtues of labor, and the value that the working classes have to the economy of the country.

For most families, though, Labor Day is a holiday marking the official end of the summer. Many take one last trip to the lake, or the pool, or take advantage of the long holiday weekend to get in a last camping or fishing trip. Since few cities have big parades anymore, many families simply content themselves with picnics, barbecues, and trips to the zoo. (Some cities still have parades — especially cities with a strong industrial presence, and there are still Labor Day festivities in the nation’s capital.)

Even as you enjoy your day off, it wouldn’t hurt to consider the past, and take a few minutes to remember that without workers, much of the prosperity we have enjoyed in this country wouldn’t be possible.


The History of Labor Day,” United States Department of Labor.

Labor Day,” Wikipedia.

2 Responses to A Brief History of Labor Day

  1. As the years go by and the climate heats up, i wouldn’t be surprised if Labor day gets moved to the beginning of October to signal the end of the summer…Could we see it in our lifetime?

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