As most Americans know, Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. However, the first celebration was much more of a rights-based social movement rather than the “relax-at-home BBQ fest with family and friends” commemorations some of us hold today. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Ironically enough, the leisurely approach most of us take on the holiday might not be possible without the efforts of our hard-working and opinionated ancestors. Without their efforts, we might be celebrating the day by merely surviving another 12-hour shift at the local iron factory.

At Labor Day’s core rests the unsightly conditions immigrants and established citizens faced in the US job market during the 1800s. From over-crowding in residential areas, to harsh work environments common during the nineteenth century, the workers of yore were over-worked, underpaid, uncertain of their job security, and generally dissatisfied with their place in society.

However, that all began to change when laborers instigated strikes in the 1870s. For example, in the spring of 1872, an unhappy Irish immigrant named Peter McGuire, as well as 100,000 workers, went on strike and marched through the streets of New York City, demanding a decrease in the long working day—and this was only one example of the action workers were beginning to take.

After nearly a decade of upheaval and several failed attempts at labor unification, the American workforce finally came together for the first unofficial Labor Day celebration/parade on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, and operated in accordance with the plans of the recently formed Central Labor Union. With protest signs that offered maxims like “"LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH," and "EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK, EIGHT HOURS FOR REST, EIGHT HOURS FOR RECREATION!,” it was clear that the workers wanted more rights as well as appreciation. After the celebration/parade, there were picnics all around the city. Workers and celebrants ate Irish stew, homemade bread and apple pie. At night, fireworks were set off.

The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day celebration just a year later on September 5th, 1883, and from the publicity of the two annual events, the idea of demanding workers’ rights spread from coast to coast.

The first governmental recognition of Labor Day came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From them developed the movement to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.

Luke Short
Historical information courtesy of the United States Department of Labor and the Embassy of the United States of America

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Posted on 2/2/14
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