Why Don’t We Labor on Labor Day?
Our news usually deals with business topics, but with Labor Day coming up this weekend, we thought it would be interesting to look at the history and origination of our beloved “end of summer” holiday: Labor Day. This day might better be called “Workers’ Day,” because that is who it celebrates—the American worker and the trade and labor groups that support them.
Encouraged by the labor movement, Labor Day’s first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed in 1885 and 1886, followed by an Oregon state bill in 1887. On June 28, 1894, Congress made it a federal holiday and designated the first Monday in September as its official date. To learn more about Labor Day, read this summary from former Department of Labor Historian Linda Stinson. If you are still curious, you can view Stinson’s entire Q&A, here.
Q: What’s the history of Labor Day? How did it all begin?
A: The Labor Day holiday is interesting because it evolved over a period of years. In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.
At that time, the labor movement was growing stronger. Many of the unions in New York prospered by joining together into one Central Labor Union made up of members from many local unions. On May 14, 1882, a proposal was made at the Central Labor Union meeting that all workers should join together for a “monster labor festival” in early September. A committee of five people was appointed to find a park for the celebration. They chose Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue, the largest park in New York City at that time; the date was set for Tuesday, September 5. By June, they had sold 20,000 tickets with the proceeds going to each local union selling them. In August, the Central Labor Union passed a resolution “that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city.”
At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.
The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”
After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.