History of Labor Day

William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library

History of Labor Day

catalogFor many, Labor Day signifies the final celebration of summer and the start of the back-to-school season. However, its initial significance represents something quite different. In fact, Labor Day was more specifically intended to be a celebration of the economic and social achievements of American workers. It is a day when Americans and those working in the U.S. pay homage to one another and celebrate the freedom, stability and leadership that defines this country. 
 Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882 marked the first Labor Day at the behest of New York City Central Labor Union members. Just a few years later in 1885, organizations in industrial cities across the U.S. were celebrating the new "workingman's holiday." As labor and union organizations grew, so did the expansion and value of this new holiday. It became so popular that on June 28, 1894, Congress enacted a law instituting the first Monday of September of every year an official Labor Day holiday in the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Legislators were also responding to growing violence and civil unrest among workers.

It was decided that the holiday should consist of a local parade to showcase "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" to the public and community, followed by a festival where workers and their families could enjoy the pleasure of each other's company and celebrate the fruits of their labor. Furthermore, as time progressed, prominent men and women would also give speeches and the holiday would take on a more political and economic significance. 

Before the holiday became compulsory by an act of Congress, workers who took time off to participate in parades were not compensated and lost out on a crucial entire day's wages. In 1909, Labor Sunday, the day preceding Labor Day, was added to the celebration by the American Federation of Labor to acknowledge the spiritual and educational tenets of the labor movement.