Origins of Labor Day

Celebrated on the first Monday in September, Labor Day signals the end of summer, and for many children across the nation, the beginning of school; however the holiday’s real intent is to honor the American worker who have contributed to the “strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country (U.S. Dept of Labor).” Labor union leader, Peter McGuire, initially proposed the idea in May 1882, inspired by the annual “Labour Day” festival that was held in Toronto, Canada. The Canadian Labour Day honored the strikers, mostly represented by the Toronto Printer’s Union, that demanded a shorter workday — less than 12 hours a day; thus the movement was known at the “Nine-Hour Movement.” According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, recent research suggests that a machinist, Matthew Maguire had proposed the holiday earlier that same year while he was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. It was that organization that adopted the holiday proposal (a street parade followed by a festival for the entertainment of the workers and their families) and formed a committee to hold the event that was first celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City. Like many American holidays, it took some time before the celebration was embraced by many states and the country as a whole. The holiday was declared a national holiday when President Cleveland signed in into law in 1894, following the violent and turbulent Pullman Strike when the American Railway Union, representing the employees that built the Pulllman railway cars, clashed with the railroad companies. By the end of the strike, 30 people had been killed, and the railroad companies sustained more than $80 million in damages due to sabotage and riots.


For further reading: The Folklore of World Holidays by Robert Griffin, Gale (1998). The Oxford Companion to the Year: An Exploration of Calendar Customs and Time-Reckoning by Bonnie Blackburn, Oxford (1999).

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