For some of us, Labor Day signifies the end of Summer, for some, it’s a day off work, for some it’s the last chance to wear those crisp, white pants. It can be a weekend for great sales and appliance deals, but traditionally it was a day designated to celebrate the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of our country.
On February 21, 1887, Oregon recognized the first Monday of every September as Labor Day, a new holiday meant to acknowledge the American labor movement and its historic accomplishments.
Since then, Labor Day has joined the ranks of Thanksgiving and Veterans Day as a nationally-recognized U.S. federal holiday.
Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. “Labor Day” was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City.
While Oregon was the first state of the United States to make it an official public holiday, but by the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty states in the United States officially celebrated Labor Day.
Making Labor Day a Celebration
Original documents aiming to establish Labor Day as a holiday called for a parade that would be followed by family-friendly festivities. As a result, parades were a huge part of the celebrations during the early days of the holiday.
If you were a factory worker in the 1880s, you were probably toiling away at your job for an average of 60 hours a week, and it wasn’t unheard of for textile laborers in New York to make only 75 cents a day, which was a paltry sum, even for the time. To bring attention to these unfair working conditions, labor organizers coordinated the first Labor Day parade on Tuesday, September 5, 1882.
Close to 10,000 people attended the parade, according to a New York Times article published on September 6, 1882. Marchers carried signs bearing slogans like “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work” and “Less Hours and More Pay.” The New York Times called the demonstration “pleasant” and “orderly,” although it noted that the parade’s organizers expected closer to 30,000 or 40,000 laborers to show up and support the march.
New York celebrates Labor Day a little more differently now with its Labor Day Carnival, which attracts between 1 and 3 million participants. The celebration which has taken place since 1947 coincides with Labor Day and many New Yorkers recognize the Caribbean Style Carnival as interwoven with Labor Day Weekend along with the annual fireworks over Coney Island.
May Day vs Labor Day
May 1st, otherwise known as May Day, is International Workers’ Day. So why is it that we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September but not May Day?
On May 1, 1886, 35,000 workers went on strike in Chicago as part of a larger organized labor protest across the country. For the first two days, the protests and demonstrations were peaceful, but by May 3, violence broke out between laborers and police during a protest at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper Works factory, leaving several workers wounded or dead.
The incident encouraged anarchist labor leaders to call for another protest the following day in Haymarket Square, where violence broke out again after police attempted to disband the crowd. At that point, an anonymous individual threw a bomb at the police, killing one officer at the scene. The police retaliated, and when all was said and done, seven officers and one civilian were killed in the chaos, and many more in the crowd were injured.
Following the riot, police arrested eight anarchist leaders on charges of conspiracy. Seven of the eight were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, despite the fact that six of the defendants weren’t even in Haymarket Square at the time the bomb was thrown.
In response to the event, at the Second International Socialist Conference in 1889, members voted to celebrate May 1 as International Workers’ Day, referred to as May Day, to commemorate the Haymarket affair.
When President Cleveland wanted to establish a holiday to celebrate America’s Workers, he chose the first Monday in September to avoid the bad connotations of the events in Chicago.
Why Do We Have Labor Unions?
American labor unions are almost as old as the nation itself. As early as 1648, the seeds of unionization were planted when coopers (barrel makers) and shoemakers in Boston banded together and formed guilds. The first collective bargaining unit was formed in Philadelphia in 1792, where a group of shoe-makers held regular meetings and collected dues. Not too long afterward, leather workers and carpenters in Boston followed suit, as well as printers in New York City.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2005 15.8 million Americans are dues-paying members of labor unions. California may not be a hotbed of manufacturing, but thanks to Hollywood and the vast array of different people needed to pump out movies and TV shows including the carpenters that build sets, make-up artists, caterers, and other behind-the-scenes workers that state leads the nation in union membership.
What is a Teamster?
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Have you ever wondered how this group of professional drivers and warehouse workers got their name? It dates back to 1903 when most deliveries were made by horse-drawn wagons. The driver was referred to as a “teamster,” because he was the one who managed the team that was pulling the load.
Today when the Teamsters are mentioned, the name “Jimmy Hoffa” immediately comes to mind. Hoffa was president of that union from 1958 until 1971, the last four of which he administered while behind bars.
Labor Day Today
How we celebrate Labor Day is a far cry from its origins. Now it’s seen as the unofficial end of summer, the dreaded return to school for kids across the country, one last weekend barbecue before we give in to the hum-drum monotony of schedules and routines we lack in summer. But with more than a century of history to its name, Labor Day is more than just a last hurrah.
Information sourced from MentalFloss.com, WiadcaCarnival.org, and Wikipedia.