The History of Labor Day
U.S. DOL - The
History of Labor Day)
Day: How it Came About; What it Means
"Labor Day differs in every essential way
from the other holidays of the year in any country,"
said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of
the American Federation of Labor. "All other
holidays are in a more or less degree connected with
conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of
strife and discord for greed and power, of glories
achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is
devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation
of the labor movement and 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
Founder of Labor Day
More than 100 years after the first Labor Day
observance, there is still some doubt as to who first
proposed the holiday for workers.
Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general
secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners
and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was
first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from
rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we
But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not
gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a
machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent
research seems to support the contention that Matthew
Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the
International Association of Machinists in Paterson,
N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as
secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is
clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day
proposal and appointed a committee to plan a
demonstration and picnic.
The First Labor Day
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on
Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in
accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The
Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday
just a year later, on September 5, 1883.
In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the
holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor
Union urged similar organizations in other cities to
follow the example of New York and celebrate a
"workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea
spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in
1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers
of the country.
Labor Day Legislation
Through the years the nation gave increasing
emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition
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
A Nationwide Holiday
The form that the observance and celebration of
Labor Day should take were outlined in the first proposal
of the holiday a street parade to exhibit to the
public "the strength and esprit de corps of the
trade and labor organizations" of the community,
followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement
of the workers and their families. This became the
pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by
prominent men and women were introduced later, as more
emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic
significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution
of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909,
the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor
Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational
aspects of the labor movement.
The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone
a change in recent years, especially in large industrial
centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved
a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in
emphasis and medium of expression. Labor Day addresses by
leading union officials, industrialists, educators,
clerics and government officials are given wide coverage
in newspapers, radio, and television.
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.
(Source: There's No Page
Like Home for the Holidays: Labor Day)
President Grover Cleveland proclaimed the first
national observance of Labor Day, henceforth the first
Monday in September. In 1882, Peter J. McGuire, founder
of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, first suggested
a day to honor workers.
That year, on September 5th, the Knights of Labor held
the first "Labor Day"
New York City. The organization repeated the parade the
next two years. In 1884 it adopted a resolution declaring
the first Monday in September to be Labor Day.
The Knights of Labor campaigned for national
recognition of the holiday, which succeeded ten years
later. On June 28th, Congress passed the bill to make
Labor Day a holiday in the District of Columbia and for
all federal workers in the states.
Because the 1894 law only applied to the District of
Columbia and federal workers in the states, each state
had to enact its own Labor Day legislation. Eventually,
all the states and territories put the law into
operation, and Labor Day became a national holiday.
(Source: Knights of Labor)
Knights of Labor
Knights of Labor, American labor organization,
started by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, led by Uriah S.
Stephens. It became a body of national scope and
importance in 1878 and grew more rapidly after 1881, when
its earlier secrecy was abandoned.
Organized on an industrial basis, with women, black
workers (after 1883), and employers welcomed, excluding
only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and stockholders, the
Knights of Labor aided various groups in strikes and
boycotts, winning important strikes on the Union Pacific
in 1884 and on the Wabash RR in 1885.
But failure in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and
the Haymarket Square riot (for which it was, although not
responsible, condemned by the press) caused a loss of
prestige and strengthened factional disputes between the
craft unionists and the advocates of all-inclusive
With the motto an injury to one is the concern of
all, the Knights of Labor attempted through
educational means to further its aimsan 8-hour day,
abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal
work, elimination of private banks,
cooperationwhich, like its methods, were highly
The organization reached its apex in 1886, when under
Terence V. Powderly its membership reached a total of
702,000. Among the causes of its downfall were factional
disputes, too much centralization with a resulting
autocracy from top to bottom, mismanagement, drainage of
financial resources through unsuccessful strikes, and the
emergence of the American Federation of Labor.
By 1890 its membership had dropped to 100,000, and in
1900 it was practically extinct.
See P. S. Foner and R. L. Lewis, ed., Black Worker:
The Era of the Knights of Labor (1979).
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2000, Columbia University Press.
page was last updated August 26, 2003.