“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. 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; and of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”
~ Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor.
Observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day pays tribute to the achievements and contributions of the American worker. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. Labor Day also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans, and back to school for the kids.
Founder of Labor Day
Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder 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.”
Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, 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.
The First Labor Day
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on a 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
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.
Did You Know?
Until Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, laborers who chose to participate in parades had to forfeit a day’s wages.