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The History of Labor Day

(Source: U.S. DOL - The History of Labor Day)

Labor 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 nation."

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 our country.

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 behold."

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 the territories.

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)

Historical Background

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" parade in 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 unionism.

With the motto “an injury to one is the concern of all,” the Knights of Labor attempted through educational means to further its aims—an 8-hour day, abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal work, elimination of private banks, cooperation—which, like its methods, were highly idealistic.

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright 1994, 2000, Columbia University Press.

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This page was last updated August 26, 2003.