An Enduring Tradition: A Short History of Labor Day

by James Broomall on August 29, 2012

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In 1893, labor leader Terence V. Powderly called Labor Day an experiment and questioned its future. As we know, Labor Day has not only continued into the present-day but thrives holding a permanent place on the American holiday calendar. But what of the Day’s origins, and how did Labor Day come into being?

The first Monday of every September, now equated as a day for rest and family relaxation, is grounded in the radical labor movements of the late nineteenth century. United States labor unions, agitating for better working conditions, turned to a familiar holiday calendar to advance their goals. Using May Day (a celebration of spring) and the Fourth of July (a celebration of American independence), city and national labor federations sponsored demonstrations, parades, and protests. Utilizing parks, town squares, and city streets, workers demonstrated class solidarity, voiced their causes, and created public forums to distribute their message. As historian Ellen M. Litwicki notes, “The socialists belief in the efficacy of holiday celebrations in building class identity and solidarity played an instrumental role in the establishment of a distinct labor holiday.”

Although some disagreement exists, most observers point to Matthew Maguire, secretary of the New York Central Labor Union, as the first figure to propose a federally recognized labor day. The idea quickly gained support among labor leaders who asserted that the event would project an image of a united workers’ front and bring together the diverse strands of the labor movement. New York witnessed the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882, a day of resounding success. According to historian Samuel Mitrani, over 250,000 New Yorkers turned out to witness between 10,000 and 20,000 disciplined paraders marching in formation and carrying banners that celebrated labor. A large picnic followed the parade.

Oregon became the first state after New York to adopt the holiday in 1887, and by 1893 over twenty states, each with a strong labor presence, had enshrined the date. During these initial years, the holiday was used as a platform for labor unions to peacefully protest for workers’ rights. However, when events such as the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the Illinois Pullman workers’ strike of 1894 became unruly and even violent, organizers were forced to strip the holiday of overt references to communism and socialism in order to disrupt an evolving national perception of labor’s radicalism. In 1894, after federal intervention turned violent during the Pullman workers’ strike, President Grover Cleveland called for Labor Day to become a federal holiday. Thereafter paraders were encouraged to carry American flags and pronounced messages of patriotism.

By the early 1900s Labor Day held a permanent place on the American calendar; a day in which workers enjoyed paid leave. Although figures such as Samuel Gompers (longest serving president of the American Federation of Labor) continued to stress the importance of labor and unions, most workers wanted to use their hard earned three-day holiday to spend time with friends and family, and picnic. Labor Day thus became a day of celebration, a day for community. According to the United States Department of Labor, Labor Day is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

The American work force has experience unprecedented growth with the diversification and globalization of the economy in the post-World War II era. Information Technology has proven to be a key driver of our modern economy, which is increasing built on technology and productivity. Workers of all stripes—from the factory floor of the automobile industry to Information Technology consultants—now enjoy Labor Day as a time for celebration, contemplation, and community. From its early origins in American labor radicalism to its current embrace of all workers, Labor Day has become a cherished day enshrined on the national calendar the first Monday of each September.

Please be sure to watch the video “A Brief History of Labor Day” below.

James Broomall is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of North Florida and author of a forthcoming essay on the post-Civil War South in the edited volume, Creating Citizenship in the 19th Century South. A scholar of the nineteenth century, he has both presented on and written about this topic in numerous forums and is currently writing a manuscript-length study of white southern men during the Civil War era.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

winston smith 6076 August 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm

You write as if the labor movement were a good thing.

Kathi Castro August 31, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Historically, very interesting! 😉

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