Labor Day, a Celebration of Workers, or Is It?

By: Hilary Atkins

Labor Day! It’s all about picnics, fireworks, and parades, right? Not so fast…it may now be more of a celebration of the unofficial end of summer and kids going back to school, but it actually had a tumultuous past, before what it has become today.

Labor Day is a U.S. National holiday held on the first Monday every September. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the day “celebrates and honors the greatest worker in the world – the American worker.” This year, Labor Day marks its 125th anniversary of being celebrated as a national holiday.

The origins of Labor Day as a singular holiday lie in something quite apart from a celebration of workers and their achievements.

The stirrings of the idea behind the day came in the late 1800’s when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. History buffs will recall that during that period of time, the average American worker had 12-hour days and no days off. Even very young children worked in factories, mills and mines, and working conditions were poor, at best. A mostly agricultural economy was giving way to manufacturing as the leading employer in the late nineteenth century.

The advent and rise of labor unions during this time saw the beginnings of organized strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and to force employers to renegotiate hours and pay for the workers. A lot of these strikes and rallies turned violent, including an incident named “the Haymarket Riot” in Chicago in 1886, during which time several policemen and workers were killed.

The first known and recognized Labor Day parade took place in New York City on September 5, 1882, when over 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march the streets of the city all the way from City Hall to Union Square.

Thereafter, a variety of municipalities passed ordinances which gave government recognition to Labor Day as a local holiday. The first law to be passed on the state level was Oregon, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Multiple states had followed suit, and then on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an Act designating the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in all states, the District of Columbia and the territories, which President Grover Cleveland signed into law.

A common misconception is that because Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. However, neither private employers nor even some government agencies are required to give their employees the day off. Retail is generally open for business, and essential government services and transportation continue to operate, and even less essential programs like our national parks are open.

So, if you aren’t working on this September 2, Labor Day, you can thank the many workers who 125 years ago, labored on your behalf and contributed to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our great country.

Enjoy that BBQ and time earned off!