10 Things You Should Know About the History of U.S. Labor Day

Labor Day, as we know it today, is a holiday that pays tribute to the hard work of millions of Americans. It aims to recognize all the achievements of Americans workers and celebrate them. This national holiday is set to be celebrated on the first Monday in September every year.

Its beginnings came from a labor movement across the United States during the late 19th century. The workers during this time had to fight for the Labor Day we have today, filled with street parades and barbeques. Unfortunately for them, their worker strikes weren’t as pleasant of events as we now celebrate today. So, on this day, we must thank our American ancestors who worked hard to give us the workers’ rights and working conditions that we experience today.

Booker T. Washington once spoke authentic words when saying, “Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having except as a result of hard work.” American workers had to endure many hardships in their work environments until the 19th century, and it is their hard work that we have to thank for the holiday of Labor Day.

American workers began to strike from their jobs in the late 19th century as a response to the 12-hour days they were forced to work in terrible working conditions. Their strikes were the workers’ way of trying to have their voices heard by business owners. It was a slow process, but they slowly managed to negotiate better conditions and shorter work hours. With this, came the celebration of Labor Day!

 

10The First Labor Day Was Celebrated in 1882

The Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration in 1882.

The first recognized Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on September 5th, 1882. The day’s event was made up of a parade of different labor organizations, as a request of the Central Labor Union. The celebration was filled with speeches by labor leaders about their fight for proper working conditions and shorter workdays.

To this day, it is uncertain who spearheaded the beginnings of Labor Day, but it was definitely one of two possible men. On the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, it says “More than a century after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. 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.” But Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged.

Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, 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. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.”

 

9The New York Parade Inspired Unions Across America

Unions continue to work to make sure every worker’s rights are being followed.

The 10,000 workers that got together in New York City on the first Monday in September in 1882 made a lasting impact on the rest of the country. They inspired workers in the rest of the United States to spark change through labor movements. The following year, New Jersey, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Oregon began having their own worker parades. Being influenced by New York City, Oregon became the first state to allow Labor Day to be celebrated legally in 1887.

These workers’ movements brought about the creation of many unions all over the country. A workers’ union functions to protect its members’ interest, maintain proper salaries for workers and ensure healthy working conditions are being provided. Unions are a highly debated topic, but there is no doubt that they get workers’ voices heard.

Investopedia, when discussing worker’s unions today, states “Despite the erosion in their power and influence, labor unions continue to prove their importance, as they were instrumental in getting President Obama elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. The unions hoped that Obama would be able to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure of legislation intended to streamline and shorten the process that unions must use to bring in new members. This act would have shifted the balance of power in the workplace in the unions’ favor and allowed their memberships to grow rapidly but failed when Democrats were unable to collect the necessary votes.” The hardships workers went through during the 19th century never become a reality again.

 

8The Haymarket Affair

The Haymarket Affair remains one of the most critical days in the history of the American labor movement. 

On May 1st, 1886, tens of thousands of workers protested across the United States of American demanding an eight-hour workday. What these Americans workers were protesting for goes back decades after the Civil War. Workers chose to strike on this day for better working conditions and a shorter workday.  In what has since become a cherished tradition for the American police, the peaceful protests were suppressed. Notably in the Haymarket Square in Chicago where the police at the protest inflicted arrays of beatings and random shootings on the striking workers. On May 3rd, several protesters were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper planet in Chicago. Later that day, the strikers met at the Haymarket Square for a rally. As the statements spoken at the rally began to get more radical, police moved in on the strikers again. During the violent struggle, somebody threw a bomb into the crowd – to this day, no one knows who released it. This bomb exploded and killed a police officer.

In the aftermath of this bombing, a trial was held, where the jury consisted almost entirely of business owners and police officers. The trial ended with seven of the protest leaders being sentenced to death. Of these seven, only two of them were present when the bomb went off. This event became known as the “Haymarket Affair,”. Although marked with such importance, these days most Americans know nothing about the happenings of that day in 1886.

 

7The History of U.S. Labor Laws

Labor laws made it illegal for anyone under the age of 14 to be employed.

American workers have been fighting to have their rights recognized over the past 200 years. One of the first-ever workers’ unions began in Philadelphia in 1794, when a group of shoemakers got together to create the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. A decade after this union’s creation, it went on strike, demanding higher wages from their employers. Well, this had a negative outcome because it made organizing a worker’s strike a federal crime. This scared many workers from asking for anything more than they were already getting at the time because they didn’t want to end up in prison. During the 1940s, the decision to have striking as a federal crime was reversed.

The National Labor Movement came into existence in 1866. Although it had a short lifespan, it helped dig the path for every labor party that followed in its footsteps. The NLM aimed to place local trade unions into a national movement. William H. Sylvis led the party, and it was one of the first groups to push for an eight-hour workday. The hardships that railway workers faced during the 19th century were what influenced the creation of the Federal Employers Liability Act in 1908. This act was made to protect any worker who was hurt while doing their job, which often happened on the railroads.

To many people’s surprise, the federal law that stated children have the right not to work was only put in place in 1938. This was part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which also began the notion of paying a mandatory minimum wage and being compensated for working overtime.

 

6Labor Day Becomes A Federal Holiday

The Labor day became a national holiday because of the meaning behind it.

U.S. Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894, 12 years after the first New York City parade celebrated it unofficially. So, why exactly is Labor Day a holiday? Unlike most holidays, it doesn’t have mascots attached to it or anything like that – it seems like just a regular day.

If you’re lucky enough to love their job, it may be hard to understand why you get a day off of work to celebrate work. We slightly touched on this idea before, but back in the 19th century, there was no such thing as a day off unless someone had physical restrictions keeping them from being able to go to work. If this were the case, they wouldn’t be paid for their “day off.” The workdays also weren’t short. Employees during this time were expected to work for as long as the sun was up. These conditions occurred during what is well known as the Industrial Revolution, where machines and the people running them were working seven days a week.

Labor Day began to be celebrated when unions were created that ensured workers would only have to work 8-hour days and were able to have their weekends off. Conflicts between police and workers ended up arising numerous times during the Labor Day parades, so President Grover Cleveland decided to make Labor Day an official federal holiday in 1894 in hopes to rebuild a better relationship between workers and state officials.

 

5The Laws That Protect U.S. Workers Today

OSHA gives every worker in America the right to be aware of any potential hazards and to be trained on how to prevent and avoid them. 

Labor Day became a celebration to recognize all American workers and their rights. Since this holiday continues to be celebrated, it means workers continue to have their rights met throughout the country. You may be wondering, what exactly are these rights? Knowing your rights as an employee is extremely important, so here are a few federal acts that you should be aware of.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) became an act in 1970. It was created to ensure every American worker’s right to work in a clean work environment that causes no health and safety hazards. This act created a standard that all work facilities in American must uphold to remain open.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) enforces the “various federal laws [that] make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee based upon “the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” If a worker ever feels like this right of theirs has been violated, they can create a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC to have the wrong recognized.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes it illegal for a worker’s health records to be distributed to any third party without their consent. This is a civil right, and if ever it is violated by an employer, the employee can choose to act against the health care provider that has wronged them.

 

4Ironically, Labor Day Can Be the Longest Working Day for Retail Workers

Large businesses are known for making a percentage of their employees work during this holiday.

Although Labor Day is supposed to give workers a day off to celebrate their achievements, and get paid to do so, not every career is lucky enough to take part in the celebration.

ATTN declares the one problem with Labor Day celebrations is that it creates one of the worst weekends for one who works in retail. ATTN’s article about this subject reads “as with every other holiday that involves a “long” weekend; Labor Day has also become a consumerist opportunity, with retailers competing for customers who have some extra time to shop. What started as a way to honor workers in the late 19th century has become a parody of the American labor movement. Businesses that do not offer paid holiday time often exploit the occasion to boost profits. It comes at the confluence of back-to-school and travel season, driving the first wave of sales before Christmas shopping takes full effect. The irony of Labor Day is not lost on laborers. However, millions of whom will be working on Monday—in many cases for even longer hours than usual. Data from Bloomberg BNA indicates that 39 percent of employers keep operations open on Labor Day and require some employees to report to work.”

It’s also not only retail workers that must work during this holiday while everyone else is partying. Technical and security workers often have to spend Labor Day committing labor instead of celebrating it.

 

3The Holiday Is Celebrated Around the World

The celebration of May Day was primarily a holiday to recognize the coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

The term “Labor Day” takes on different names depending on where you are in the world, but always honors the same people: the workers. One of its other titles is “International Workers’ Day,” which is celebrated every year on the first of May – unlike the American and Canadian Labor Days that are always celebrated on the first Monday in September. This same holiday is also occasionally referred to as “May Day.” After the Haymarket Affair took place, the anniversary of May Day also began to act as a day to remember the workers that suffered during this event and its aftermath. The term “May Day” itself is meant to signify the first day of May, so since these celebrations both took place on this day every year, they end up getting grouped together.

Kenya is an excellent example of celebrating a holiday very similar to American Labor Day. According to Wikipedia, “In Kenya, 1 May is a public holiday and celebrated as Labour Day. It is a big day addressed by the leaders of the workers’ umbrella union body – the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU). The Minister for Labour (and occasionally the President) address the workers. Each year, the government approves (and increases) the minimum wage on Labour Day.”

China’s version of Labor Day used to last an entire three days, but since 2008 it was put into one day. Chinese workers are allowed to take this day off as long as they make up for it in the weeks following. The holiday now takes place only on May 1st of every year.

 

2Wearing White After Labor Day

Wearing white differentiated labor from the working class, who couldn’t always afford to have all kinds of different colored clothing.

The idea that one should not wear white after Labor Day has existed since the holiday itself, but where exactly did this claim originate? There are a few hypotheses of how this notion could have begun. The first makes the most sense. Wearing white, for as long as clothes have been around, has been a color worn to stay cool during hot temperatures. This practical fashion choice turned into an editorial fashion concept of the 20th century. White clothes are made for summer, no other season. Since autumn is filled with rainy days, high-class brands could not have their white pieces being ruined in this weather, so they stopped producing white clothes for the year once summer had ended. Except, fashion is rarely this practical, so this is why other hypotheses continue to exist.

An article in Time Magazine says, “Instead, other historians speculate, the origin of the no-white-after–Labor Day rule may be symbolic. In the early 20th century, white was the uniform of choice for Americans well-to-do enough to decamp from their city digs to warmer climes for months at a time: light summer clothing provided a pleasing contrast to drabber urban life.”

During the 1950s, the idea of not wearing white after Labor Day seemed to form itself into an actual rule, which many followed. The ones who developed this rule were old-money elites trying to show anyone with new money that they could not only move their way up the ladder without following “societal” norms.

 

1This Holiday Marks Many Other Ends and Beginnings

Memorial Day acts as Labor Day’s counterpart since it is known for marking the beginning of summer.

Labor Day comes around every year and marks a number of turning points. As anyone who lives somewhere that experiences the four seasons knows, September is the month that takes us from summer to autumn. Since American Labor Day is always held on the first Monday in September, the holiday has begun to be unofficially known as an indicator for the ending of summer.

For students, Labor Day also marks the beginning of a new school year. It seems that Labor Day involves everyone’s life getting back into a routine. The freeness of summer tries to linger on, but as the leaves change colors, so do people’s priorities.

RR Star puts it nicely when they state, “After Labor Day, work takes a turn back toward the routine and purposeful. Play is nice, but people need to do something useful with their days. Each Labor Day, we’re reminded of relevant issues in frustrating and visible ways, including teacher strikes or the threat of them. Beyond right and wrong, fair and unfair, the push-pull nature of the labor-management relationship is in our faces.”

On a less severe note, Labor Day also puts an end to barbeque season, but not without a bang! This holiday is known for being the third most popular day for Americans to use their barbeques. Speaking of food, Labor Day also meets the end of the hot dog season.

 

Conclusion

Now you know that every time Labor Day comes around, you’re celebrating the hard workers who fought to have their voices heard and make the U.S. labor laws what they are today. Today, Labor Day marks the 160 million workers in America who keep the country running the way it does. Besides the present workers, it pays tribute to every worker that helped fight to get us where we are today regarding worker’s unions and rights. Labor Day functions as a “look how far we’ve come” holiday. If you ever catch yourself complaining about your 9 to 5 job, consider the American workers from the 18th and 19th centuries that had to work 12-hour days every day of the week. When you put this into perspective, your workday won’t seem so long.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a field that is permitted to have Labor Day off, consider yourself lucky. Although it has been a federal holiday for over 100 years now, not all workers get to celebrate their labor on this day since businesses like retail and maintenance skyrocket when long weekends come around. Labor Day comes with its own traditions, like barbeques, parades, and the debate on whether one should wear white after the holiday. The infamous Michael Kors once tweeted, “Ignore the old rules. White after Labor Day is glamorous. -xxMK.” So, when it comes to today’s fashion, it’s out with the old and in with the new.