What is Labor Day and Why Do Americans Celebrate It?

Labor Day flag
U.S. Secret Service agents talk before U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage at the 11th Congressional District Labor Day Parade and Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 5, 2016. Brian Snyder/Reuters

As summer draws to a close and schools prepare to open their doors again, Labor Day comes around like a sweet salve to workers in the United States.

Celebrated on the first Monday in September, Labor Day is one of just 10 federal holidays in the United States and pays tribute to the American workers movement.

But while it is celebrated in modern times with BBQs, holidays and sales shopping, the holiday has a bloody history and came out of a long battle for workers' rights in the country.

What does Labor Day celebrate?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the holiday is "a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." Labor Day is a "yearly national tribute" to the "contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and wellbeing of our country."

In practice, all government offices and organizations are closed, while many private businesses also shut for the day to enable workers to mark the occasion with their families.

When was the first Labor Day?

Workers in New York City celebrated the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882, with a parade organized by trade unions. It was overseen by the Central Labor Union (CLU), a left-wing union that later broke up into local organizations that are members of the modern American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

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But while the first rally was held in New York, Oregon was the first state to institute Labor Day as a holiday, passing legislation to that effect in 1887. Over the following seven years, some 30 states made it a holiday. In 1894, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to approve Labor Day as a national holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

Who created Labor Day?

There is some dispute over the foundation of the holiday, according to the Department of Labor. Some records attest to Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first to propose a holiday in honor of workers. The holiday, McGuire said, should honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."

But other historians propose that another man, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was the founder of the holiday. According to some research, Maguire proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the CLU in New York.

What's the history behind Labor Day?

The holiday evolved out of decades of tensions between workers and unions on one side, and state security forces and employers on the other. During the last two decades of the 1800s, workers carried out some 37,000 strikes in the United States; and between 1870 and 1914, up to 800 American workers were killed during strikes, almost entirely by state security forces or the military, the Washington Post reported, citing historian Edward T. O'Connell.

Oakland strike
Bay Area Rapid Transit workers carry signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt BART station on the first day of the BART strike in Oakland, California, on October 18, 2013. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The tensions culminated in the Pullman strike, during which workers for railcar manufacturers the Pullman Company in Chicago went on strike after their wages were cut by almost 30 percent, but the rents and prices at company-owned accommodation and stores remained static. The strike was backed by other unions—the nationwide American Railroad Union pulled its members from trains that had Pullman Cars—and a total of 125,000 workers on 29 railroads quit rather than handle Pullman cars, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The strike came to a bloody head when the federal government sent in the military to enforce a court injunction against the strike; the riots resulted in 30 deaths and $80 million worth of damages. Just six days after the end of the strike, President Cleveland signed the bill that made Labor Day a national holiday, in an apparent bid to appease workers.

How do Americans celebrate Labor Day?

In the spirit of the founders, Labor Day is still celebrated with union-organized parades, colorful festivals and parties and picnics. Many use the last days of summer as an opportunity to have a BBQ with friends, while others use it for a last-minute getaway: the holiday is associated with heavy congestion on roads and at airports.

Less so in the spirit of the founders, Labor Day has also become something of a festival of consumerism. Many shops and online retail outlets hold week-long "Labor Day" sales and the holiday has become one of the biggest sale days in the United States.

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