When you think of Labor Day, you might think of sales, family barbecues, and the informal end of summer.
For most Americans, the long weekend is a much-needed opportunity to reunite with friends and family, offering a final hooray before fall begins.
But the Monday holiday has a deeper meaning, rooted in his 19th-century fight for fair working conditions. Labor Day was originally designed to honor workers
as part of America’s organized labor movement.
When Labor Day started:
According to the US Department of Labor, Labor Day was first unofficially enacted by labor activists and individual states in the late 18th century.
New York was the first state to introduce legislation to recognize Labor Day, but Oregon was the first state to actually recognising it into law in 1887.
Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York in late 1887.
According to labour historian Joshua Freeman, emeritus professor at the City University of New York, the holiday developed as unions were starting to
regain momentum following the 1870s recession.
According to Freeman, two occurrences that occurred in New York City coincided to create Labor Day.
First, the Central Labor Union, now defunct, was established as a “umbrella body” for unions from all trades and racial backgrounds.
In addition, the city hosted a meeting of the Knights of Labor, the then-largest national labour convention, replete with a sizable
However, because the parade was on a Tuesday at the beginning of September, many employees were unable to go.
The conference was a big success, and from the beginning of September, unions all over the country began hosting their own labour holidays,
typically on the first Monday of the month.
According to Freedman, at first, participating “was a pretty risky move because you could get yourself fired.” But as time went on, more states started
to observe the holiday, and more firms started to offer their staff the day off.
Congress didn’t enact a law making the first Monday in September a legal holiday known as Labor Day until June 28, 1894.
According to Freeman, President Grover Cleveland dispatched the military earlier that year to put an end to the Pullman railway strike. Days after the strike ended,
Cleveland pushed through legislation to establish Labor Day as a “gesture towards organised labour,” according to Freeman.
What Labor Day means
Unions were battling for “quite concrete improvements in their working conditions” at the time Labor Day was established, according to Freeman. The majority of workers currently enjoy an eight-hour workday, but they had to battle hard for it. Labor Day gave them a chance to get together to talk about their goals and a chance for the nation to recognise the contributions that workers make to society.
But, according to Freeman, the Labor Day celebration also had a more radical political undercurrent. He claimed that the Knights of Labor were investigating the notion that “the industrial or capitalist system was fundamentally exploitative.” “It introduced other forms of inequality, not simply in terms of wealth but also in terms of power. They therefore desired giving working people more societal influence.”
There were many voices substantially criticising this new system when Labor Day first started, Freeman continued. At the time, labour leaders promoted socialist or collective corporate ownership as alternatives to the “capitalist wage system.”