History of Labor Day- Updated

by Michael Haberman on September 3, 2012 · 0 comments


My local paper has a headline that reads “On Labor Day, U.S. workers insecure” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, September 02, 2012.) The article deals with the state of the economy and the losses that workers of all ilk have suffered. With multiple generations, global pressures, deregulation of industries, and the decline of unions “a lot of American workers are really exposed to market forces and globalization in ways that they haven’t been for five or six decades,” according to labor economist, and professor, Bruce Kaufman. (Bruce was a favorite professor of mine during my Master’s program and made labor economics interesting.)

Today, Labor Day is not really about what it was originally intended. Most people do not know the origin of Labor Day. In the following post, originally posted on September 6, 2010, I tell the story of the original labor day, and it had nothing to do with appliance sales.  

The Result of a Railway Strike

Labor Day as an observance of the “working man” originated in 1882 in New York City and was observed on September 5th of that year. Although the originator is in some dispute it is generally attributed to Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later secretary for a machinist local. In 1884 the first Monday of September was suggested as the day of observance, rather than the 5th of September. As labor unions caught on the movement for celebrating became more widespread. That did not occur until 1894 following a contentious and violent strike by Pullman Rail Car workers, which had been declared a violation of Federal law, by President Grover Cleveland. Because it was an election year, Cleveland was looking for a way to appease the labor unions (gee imagine a politician doing such a thing). Thus right after the Pullman strike was settled (not in favor of the union by the way) Cleveland had a law rushed through Congress and he signed it 6 days after the strike ended. That made Labor Day a Federal holiday. (It also cemented it in September, keeping it away from May Day, which many European countries celebrate for workers and communists and socialists.) States also passed state legislation and the dawn of the 20th century saw widespread observance.

Much Different Today

The holiday was originally supposed to be on involving speeches and parades. Today it has lost much of that ballyhoo. It is for many the mark of the end of summer. Pools close, even though in the South September can be a very hot month. So we head to lakes. Children get ready to return to school, though that has changed too. Here in Georgia kids have been in school since the middle of August. It is marked by massive retail sales. Cars, appliances, home goods and much more go on sale. It also means that Halloween candy, if it is not already out on store shelves, will soon be.

It is no longer a day, which, as Samuel Gompers, head of the America Federation of Labor (the AFL in what would become the AFL-CIO that most people are familiar with) once called it “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

So if you happen to be reading this on Monday, September 6th, then finish up, pop a cold one and put a burger on grill for me.

For further reading, as if you might be interested you can go to these links:

Pbs.org online NewsHour

USDOL History of Labor Day

 Labor Day in Wikipedia

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