On September 5, 1882, some 10,000 people marched through Union Square in New York City. Organizers were hoping for about twice that many, but some of the workers decided to take the day to take their families out to Coney Island and other local attractions.
Those who showed up, though, were generally well-dressed and orderly; there was a large police presence but no reported arrests.
Marchers carried signs that said things like, “Labor Built this Republic and Labor shall Rule it;” “The Laborer Must Receive and Enjoy the Full Fruit of His Labor;” “Down with Convict Contract Labor;” “Labor will be United;” “Labor Pays All Taxes;” and “The True Remedy is Organization and the Ballot.”
Another march was held on the same date the following year.
Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday on September 5, 1887.
In 1894, the holiday moved to the first Monday in September and was celebrated by 30 states (there were 44 in the U.S. at that time). Congress declared it a federal holiday that same year.
It seems Labor Day was chosen as the federal holiday to celebrate workers in an effort to avoid celebrating May Day as a holiday. In 1886, a bomb exploded at a union picket and a riot ensued, and seven policemen died.
While today Labor Day is often celebrated as the unofficial end of summer — the last day for beaches, vacation seasons and outdoor pools, and in some cases the last day of summer break for public school systems — its intended purpose is to celebrate the contribution of the labor force.
The U.S. Department of Labor details the celebration outlined when Labor Day was first proposed as a holiday:
A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.
The initial marches weren’t just to draw attention to the usefulness of American workers. Laborers worked 12-hour days. There was no minimum wage and there were no safety regulations. There were riots and strikes and workers wanted change.
If you’re one of those people who gets the day off and will celebrate with a swim and some hot dogs and beers, remember to take a minute and remember some unions are still fighting for workers. From the AFL-CIO:
This Labor Day, working people in every corner of the country have good reason to be proud. Our movement is on the rise. We are marching and striking and organizing. We are refusing to accept business as usual.
For decades, corporations have rigged the economy to work for the few at the expense of the many. They have tried to destroy our unions. And too many of America’s leaders have done their bidding, waging an assault on our most fundamental freedoms.
But we have never looked to corporations or politicians to validate our movement. The rights of working people have always been won and sustained by our own desire and passion for change.
We have the power to create the fair economy and just society that we deserve. And that means making our voices heard loud and clear on the campaign trail and defeat corporate-backed politicians and fill the halls of power with genuine allies of working families.