The little known roots of Labor Day

Labor Day Parade - DOLMICHIGAN — Every year since 1894, the people of these United States have enjoyed an extended holiday weekend created by Congress to salute the achievements made and by workers in every area of U.S. production, service and industry.

Labor Day was declared a national holiday as “…a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

According to former Department of Labor  historian Linda Stinson, the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.

“In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date,” said Stinson. “The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.”

Originally, Labor Day involved street parades followed by local festivals and picnic parties for workers and their families. In larger cities, speeches by politicians and labor leaders were the norm.

Labor Day celebrations have changed a lot.

Largely gone are the parades and salutes to workers. There still is some of that in larger cities and industrial centers, but Labor Day has mainly become a day off work and a last fling of the summer vacation season.

Not a lot is known about the roots of Labor Day.

Stinson was more than happy to clear this up during a Department of Labor interview.

Q: What’s the history of Labor Day? How did it all begin?

A: The Labor Day holiday is interesting because it evolved over a period of years. In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.

At first organizers were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. But by the time the parade reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”

After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.

Q: Can you clear up some confusion: who is the father of Labor Day?

A: When studying the history of Labor Day, two names stand out, and the funny thing is that they sound just alike. One is Peter J. McGuire, a leading official in the American Federation of Labor and organizer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. The other is Matthew Maguire, a machinist from the Knights of Labor. The problem with declaring a single “founder” of Labor Day is that, at the time, no one realized that a new national holiday was being born. It was only after the fact that people tried to pinpoint a single founding father.

Q: When did it become a national holiday and why?

A: Labor Day as a national, legal holiday had an interesting evolution. The legalized celebration of Labor Day began as individual state celebrations. In 1887, New York, New Jersey and Colorado were among the first states to approve state legal holidays.

Then other states joined in to create their own state Labor Days. Finally, in response to a groundswell of support for a national holiday celebrating the nation’s workers, Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced S. 730 to the 53rd Congress to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September each year. It was approved on June 28, 1894.

Labor Day may not be what it started out to be, but it still provides an extra day of rest for American working families…and there are some great sales.

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Posted by Jim Crees

Jim is the editor in chief of the Pioneer, Herald Review and Lake County Star. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8360 or by e-mail at jcrees@pioneergroup.com.

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