Why Does Labor Day Exist?

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Labor Day 2020 will occur on Monday, September 7 to honor the contributions and achievements of American workers. This year’s Labor Day, though, will be different: Sure, it’s on the first Monday of September as usual, but given the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have advised Americans to celebrate Labor Day differently. But how is Labor Day usually celebrated, and why? Below, learn the history of Labor Day. 

When did Labor Day start?

The first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. Oregon was the first state to recognize the holiday and did so in February 1887. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law as a peace offering after a deadly railroad workers’ strike. 

Why did Labor Day start?

In the late 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, many Americans worked for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Most jobs were often low-paying and physically laborious. Additionally, immigrants and children worked as indentured servants, and employers exploited them to work at farms, factories, and mines. In general, work conditions were dangerous for a vast amount of Americans. 

American workers started the tradition of the annual Labor Day parade on Sept. 5, 1882. 10,000 people marched from New York’s City Hall to a giant picnic at Union Square. The Labor Day parade organizers did not expect nearly this many people to attend and march, and the huge turnout suggested an official holiday could well be a realistic goal. The people attending the march included tradespeople such as dressmakers, shoemakers, cigar makers, printers, bricklayers, and more.

Despite the huge turnout (or perhaps because of it), there remain conflicting theories of who created the holiday more than a century after the inaugural celebration. Some people credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor. Others believe that Peter’s brother Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday. 

Some historians claim that Peter J. Maguire proposed a celebration to honor American workers that would become Labor Day. He is often credited with thinking of the idea for the holiday and outlining its purpose. He also decided on the timing of Labor Day and simply chose the first Monday of September out of convenience. He believed that the date should be sometime between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, ideally about halfway between the two.

Recent research has indicated a different story: Matthew Maguire proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Some historians say that while Peter thought of Labor Day in the first place, Maguire executed his brother’s vision. What many historians agree on is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal, which led to the national recognition of the holiday.

Why do people celebrate Labor Day?

Labor Day celebrates workers’ rights and the contributions of the American labor unions that fought for them. In the modern age, the Saturday and Sunday preceding the Monday of Labor Day is known as Labor Day Weekend and is also considered the end of summer.

The work of labor unions made conditions better for the many American workers, immigrants, indentured servants, and slaves who built the country’s infrastructure. However, Americans still work more hours and take fewer vacation days compared to most western countries. 

How is Labor Day celebrated?

Labor Day and Labor Day weekend are usually celebrated with barbecues, fireworks displays, parades, and picnics. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Labor Day Weekend will look different. Some experts recommend avoiding gatherings of all sizes this Labor Day. Other encourage people who want to celebrate to do only so via small gatherings outside while wearing a mask and properly social distancing. You may want to limit your celebrations to include only people to whom you are regularly exposed.

How will you celebrate Labor Day this year, if at all? Share your plans in the comments!

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