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Labor Day: How Did it Get Started?

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882.

Today is Labor Day, a national holiday.

Here a look by the U.S. Department of Labor on how Labor Day got started:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Founder of Labor Day

More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers.

Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."

But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

The First Labor Day

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 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. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

Labor Day Legislation

Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From them developed the movement to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

A Nationwide Holiday

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression. Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics and government officials are given wide coverage in newspapers, radio, and television.

The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.

Andromachos September 05, 2012 at 12:36 PM
So, Jenga believes that the union leadership of his union needs to prioritize its efforts differently. That, with nothing more according to Mr. Meyer, shows that Jenga finds it offensive and distasteful to be a union member. Really it only illustrates Mr. Meyer's total inability to handle any disagreement with the idea that unions are perfect. In reality, unions are run by people. People want power and money and want to exercise their power and spend the money for their own benefit. Protecting objectively lousy employees, is just a way for union to flex its muscles to management with no concern for the workers or the customers of the businesses that both unions and management work for. This is completely different and apart from protecting adequate workers from subjective complaints, false accused or discrimination by a manager who simply does not like the worker.
jeff meyer September 05, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Andro, I have never, ever stated that unions are perfect so please be accurate. What I have stated is that they are NECESSARY for the worker. Quite a difference. Jenga habitually rants against unions. That is his right. I find it more then ironic that he is represented by a union. As I have stated no one is forcing him to work a unionized job. Furthermore, like Jenga, you feel the need to focus on the protection of what you deem the lousy worker. Who makes such a determination? You Andro? Due process in the work place is a vital function that a union provides. Jeff Meyer Tuckahoe,NY
Andromachos September 05, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Ann - I am not an economist, but it seems that perhaps the friction is not solely the nature of the work (manufacturing v info economy) but the "shrinking" of the globe, partly related to the ease of communication. When it is so much cheaper to make everything from a $50,000 car to a 10 cent toy in another country, and when it is cheaper to hire service workers, everything from typists to sales to customer service because the wages, regulations etc. are less onerous there than they are here, we here have a big problem. Also, forcing them to be here, by government regulation and taxes, is not a solution. Your $50,000 car becomes $75,000. Your 10 cent toy becomes 15 cents and businesses can no longer afford customer service, have less typists and sales people because they can not afford to employ them. A problem similar to inflation but without the benefit of eliminating long term debt in the system.
Ann Fanizzi September 06, 2012 at 08:45 AM
Globalization has both exposed structural problems in our system and introduced variables in our economy which band-aids are not going to fix. We indeed live in challenging times.
Francis T McVetty September 08, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Ann and unfortunately we had NO leader for those four years. You can't lead form behind. Now the new theme is forward. What over a cliff?

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