Labor Day: Why We Celebrate

The first Monday in September, or Labor Day, is a day set aside in honor of “the social and economic achievements of American workers.”

For many of us, Labor Day will simply mean time off from work or school to enjoy a three-day weekend. Even though many students went back to school beginning in August, and although much of the United States still has some warm weather to enjoy before fall begins, Labor Day is often celebrated as the symbolic end of summer.

It’s one last chance for barbecues, pool parties, summer travel, and outdoor fun. It’s also the start of football season, and traditionally, the last acceptable day to wear white (not that anyone abides by that anymore).

Labor Day wasn’t always about football and barbecues.

Labor Day got its start in the 1880s, as a result of the labor movement. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the labor movement worked towards better treatment for workers.

Eventually, the things they worked for, like eight-hour work days, weekends, overtime and sick days, child labor laws, and workplace safety standards became commonplace. But at the time, the average workday was ten hours long, with few holidays or days off, and young children were working in dangerous conditions.

Who founded Labor Day?

If you’re enjoying a day off from school or work on Labor Day, you can thank a man named Matthew Maguire, or possibly one named Peter J. McGuire. Yes, the true founder of Labor Day is a topic that’s somewhat disputed.

Some say it was Peter McGuire, a carpenter and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, which was led by President Samuel Gompers from 1886-1924. McGuire is sometimes credited with first suggesting a day to honor “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”  (Put simply, the American worker.)

Others say that Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, was the first to propose the holiday in 1882.

Whether it was Maguire or McGuire who proposed the original idea, we do know that the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The events of that inaugural Labor Day included a picnic, speeches, a concert, and a parade made up of ten thousand workers.

Labor Day was later moved to the first Monday in September and was adopted gradually by other states, beginning with Oregon in 1887. By 1894, the holiday had been adopted by 31 states and in June of that year, Congress officially signed the day into law as a national holiday.

While most of us won’t celebrate the day by listening to speeches or watching a parade, we can all take a moment to remember the workers that built this country, and all of the hard-working people who continue to make it great. If you’d like to learn more, here are some good educational resources to explore with kids:

Happy Labor Day!

*This post was updated August 2016

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