Labor Day 2019: Why We Celebrate It, and History of the Holiday

The first Monday of September is Labor Day in the U.S. But have you ever wondered why we celebrate Labor Day?

Labor Day, per the U.S. Department of Labor, celebrates the year-round efforts of American workers who diligently contribute to U.S. society and the economy. According to the Department of Labor, Labor Day is a "national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

This year's Labor Day, on Monday, September 2, marks the 125th celebration of the federal holiday. The history of the annual tradition dates back to 1894, when U.S. President Grover Cleveland made the celebration a nationally recognized holiday.

The history of Labor Day

Though Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, it was observed by nearly 30 U.S. states for years before this, acknowledging the efforts of typically blue-collar workers who worked long hours for little pay in manufacturing jobs.

In the late 1800s, workers in fields such as factory work, mills and roadworks, began demanding better pay and working conditions, and this led to a rise in labor unions in the U.S.

The first Labor Day activity on record took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. 10,000 workers took part in the first Labor Day parade when they took unpaid time off work to march between City Hall and Union Square.

labor day parade in 1982
Marchers from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in a Labor Day parade in New York City, September 1982. Barbara Alper/Getty

A key event to nationwide recognition of Labor Day was the Pullman railroad strike in June 1894.

The strike was in response to George Pullman, a railroad proprietor, cutting his workforce and slashing wages in 1893. This led to a boycott of railroad workers that crippled the traffic across the country.

Protests by workers in Chicago led President Cleveland to send troops to the state to enforce an injunction banning strike action. The violence that followed killed at least 30 people.

Who came up with Labor Day?

The exact innovator of Labor Day is contested.

Matthew Maguire, who was the Secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, is often credited as the man who first posited the idea of a federal holiday honoring America's labor force. He is said to have suggested such a day after the success of the first-ever labor workers' parade in New York in September 1882.

However, a man called Peter J. McGuire, vice president of the American Federation of Labor, is also credited with the idea of Labor Day. He is claimed to have mooted the idea in 1882 and suggested it be held on the first Monday in September because of good weather and because it would fall midway through the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving on the calendar.