The History Of Labor Day: It’s Not Just Another Day Off

Part of a night shift in an Indiana glass factory, August 1908. Lewis W. Hines (1874-1940). This photograph was taken as part of an assignment for the National Child Labor Committee and the original belongs to the National Child Labor Committee Collection of the Library of Congress. This print (Collection of the Rakow Research Library 92651) was obtained from the Library of Congress.

On the first Monday of September, the United States celebrates Labor Day. What is Labor Day and how did it come to be a holiday? The fact is, while most of us are happy to get the day off or go to a parade, most of us don’t know the history behind the holiday — only that it’s been pegged as the last day of the year that you can wear white pants.

The first Labor Day parade was held September 5th, 1882 in New York City to celebrate the strength of trade and labor organizations and to host a festival for workers’ families, but there are conflicting theories as to who created the holiday. Some say that it was Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor, but others argue it was Matthew Maguire who proposed the holiday while serving as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.

What is clear is that the celebration became an unofficial annual affair in New York City held on the first Monday of September. Other states and cities were following suit by 1885, after some urging from the Central Labor Union.

But the history of Labor Day isn’t all parades and parties. Strikes and riots also played a huge role, like Chicago’s Haymarket riot. The Haymarket riot left eight people dead, and was a major setback for the organized labor movement in America.

After the Pullman Strike in 1894, a nationwide railway strike, President Grover Cleveland extended an olive branch to unions and designated Labor Day a federal holiday. However, rather than celebrate the holiday on May 1, International Workers’ Day, which has Communist ties and was just days before the anniversary of the Haymarket riot, President Cleveland went with a date designated by McGuire or Maguire, the jury is still out on which.

Today, the holiday is synonymous with the start of the school year, store-wide sales and discounts. Ironically, because of those sales, retail employees at stores like Wal-Mart are forced to not only work on Labor Day, but work extended hours. As do many non 9 to 5 workers like law enforcement, firefighters, service technicians like plumbers and electricians, etc.

Instituted in support of Unions initially, it has come to represent all of those who go to work everyday to make our economy run. Ironically, this Labor Day comes as American workers are unemployed or under-employed  in huge numbers. Labor Participation Rates are at their lowest point since the 1970s and has been sharply declining since 2009. Over a third of working age Americans are no longer either employed or even looking for work.

Then there is “underemployment,” meaning people are working, but are working part-time or at jobs that are below their skill and experience level. Gallup defines a good job as 30+ hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck. Right now, the U.S. is delivering at a staggeringly low rate of 44%, which is the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population, 18 years and older. We need that to be 50% and a bare minimum of 10 million new, good jobs to replenish America’s middle class.

So, on this Labor Day let’s celebrate those who are working to keep the economy moving, but not forget those who are unemployed, underemployed or have given up hope of ever working again. According to the annual federally mandated report “Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors,” published by the Department of Health and Human Services, the welfare dependency rate “peaked” under President Obama’s watch in 2010 when 5.3 percent of the total population was receiving half of its total income in a one-year period from the government, and that figure has only “declined slightly since,” according to the report.

Happy Labor Day to all those who are working or have the day off from their job to celebrate.

To the Third of Americans not working, hang in there it’s an election year so you’ll be promised the moon in exchange for your vote. Just remember a promise only helps you if it is kept, so use your “free time” to really investigate those who are making the promises, their record of keeping their promises and what their opponents bring to the table as well. Which is good advice for the working folks as well, if you want to stay working.

Happy Labor Day

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About the Author

Jon Britton
Joining the U.S. Air Force right out of high school, Jon had the opportunity to experience many different parts of the world and different cultures. His post military career path, both white collar and blue collar, allowed him to work alongside both CEOs and average Joes. "Writing was never a goal or even vaguely contemplated as a career choice, it just happened, an accidental discovery of a talent and a passion." A passion that has taken him in many directions from explorations of the zombie subculture and writing zombie stories to politics and News. He is an avid "people watcher," political junkie and has a ravenous appetite for history and current events alike.