For millions of Americans, Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. It means barbecues and parades. For others, it signals the start of football season, or the beginning of the school year. And, perhaps most importantly, it means a day off for millions of U.S. workers.
But what is Labor Day all about? Why do we celebrate it, and how did it become a national holiday?
The origins of Labor Day
Historians typically credit two labor leaders, Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union, and Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor with putting the holiday on the calendar. Their goal was to establish a general holiday to celebrate the working class, and to demonstrate the solidarity of workers.
Labor Day was probably first observed on September 5, 1882. That year, 10,000 workers held a parade in New York City, which subsequently led to copycat parades across the country. The celebrations grew from there, eventually leading to recognition from the federal government.
In 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize the events as a public holiday. And in 1894, President Grover Cleveland formally designated the first Monday in September as “Labor Day”.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
And that’s what Labor Day is all about—celebrating the working men and women in the U.S.
The labor movement
Labor Day is the fruit of the labor movement, which sought greater protections and rights for workers. The movement began in the U.S. in the mid-1700s, as labor unions organized strikes and fought for higher wages, safer working conditions, child labor laws, and even health benefits.
Over the next two and a half centuries, the movement would win many battles (many of them ending in bloodshed), and ultimately cleared the way for rules and regulations that protect workers today. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, established a minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws. Later, Congress amended it to establish today’s 40-hour workweek.
Consider that in the late 1800s, it was common for factory employees to work 100 hours a week. Today, the average U.S. worker spends 34.5 hours on the clock each week, according to federal government data.
What the Labor movement achieved for U.S. workers
Modern unions and organized labor groups definitely have their critics, who say they can stifle innovation and reduce the incentive to work among unionized employees. But the labor movement is generally credited with winning the following for U.S. workers, among other things:
- Child labor laws
- Minimum wage
- The 40-hour workweek
- Standard weekends
- Paid leave and sick days
- Workplace safety standards
So, when you bite into a Ball Park frank this Labor Day, savor it while remembering why you have the day off.