The first Monday in September has been designated as “Labor Day”—a national holiday set aside to celebrate and commemorate the contributions that hardworking Americans have made to the prosperity and well-being of our country. As originally designed, it was to be celebrated by street parades to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Although over the years the workplace has undergone significant changes, Labor Day remains today a national tribute to all American workers—union and nonunion, citizen and noncitizen, worker and manager.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) website, the original idea for commemorating a “labor day” came from organized labor over 130 years ago at the height of industrialism in the United States, when average Americans worked 12-hour days and 7-day work weeks to eke out a basic living without guarantee of a minimum wage or overtime compensation. Children toiled in mills, factories, and mines across the country. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions without rest breaks.
According to the DOL, depending on which account you believe, the observance came from either one of two union leaders named McGuire. Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, who suggested a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Matthew Maguire also claimed credit for the idea. 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.
Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners
and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor.
Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.
Regardless of who deserves credit for the original idea, the first Labor Day was celebrated officially on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected for the holiday. Thereafter, following the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed, a series of state and municipal laws were enacted to commemorate Labor Day. The first state law came from Oregon on February 21, 1887, followed by laws enacted in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. By 1894, 23 other states—for a total of 30 states—had adopted the holiday, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed a national law making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday to commemorate workers. President Grover Cleveland signed federal legislation providing for a federal “Labor Day” following the deaths of 34 workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike led by Eugene V. Debs.
Today, Labor Day has been celebrated by speeches and addresses from organized labor, business leaders, civic and community representatives, and, of course, national, state, and local politicians, including the president of the United States. The holiday has been associated with the “last hurrah” of summer vacation for school kids and the last day of the year to wear white shoes for some. Of course, the holiday has been marked by seasonal Labor Day retail sales second only to November’s Black Friday sales.
In recent years, however, Labor Day has also become a day of speeches, staged protests, demonstrations, and rallies orchestrated by leaders of organized labor. Where the original concept of Labor Day was celebratory and cohesive, designed to unite the country in honoring the accomplishments of workers, today it often presents the opportunity for opposing groups to champion the issue du jour—immigration reform and legalization of undocumented workers, wage inequality, health care, employment discrimination, occupational safety and health, retirement security, and so on— or to target particular employers for unionization.
There still are problems for workers even in today’s economy to be sure, especially for those structurally unemployed workers who cannot find work. We need to strengthen the American economy for certain. But rather than cursing the darkness, instead we should be celebrating the tremendous strides and accomplishments that separate today’s workplace and world of work from those of our forebears over a century ago, making today’s work easier, less dangerous, more remunerative, and more entrepreneurial. We should celebrate the many important contributions of organized labor—including acknowledging the now-ubiquitous bumper sticker seeking thanks for the people who brought us weekends—while at the same time honoring the work of the other 93.4 percent of private sector workers and 88.7 percent of all workers who do not belong to labor unions.
All work has dignity and is deserving of our respect, whether done by a citizen or noncitizen, a worker or a manager, a union member or nonunion worker. Happy Labor Day to all, as Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire might have said over 130 years ago, to honor all those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”