Always held on the first Monday in September, Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday. For many people, it’s a symbolic end of summer and start of the school year, celebrated with barbecuing and shopping.
However, it was envisioned as a celebration of the American worker and the great American work ethic. The holiday’s founders back in the late 1800s envisioned a different sort of holiday. It was a creation of the labor movement. The first Labor Day celebrations were parades to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by festivals for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. Speeches by prominent union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics, and government officials were also given.
In the U.S., the first Labor Day parade was on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a legal national holiday.
Labor Day was all about the great American worker, the driving engine behind the most productive economy in the world, and the American work ethic which led to one of the highest standards of living in the world. All of this came out of a belief in economic and political democracy. Of course, Labor Day not only celebrated the American workers, but also protected their quality of life, addressing the problems of the day—from long working hours to no time off.
Labor Day was the idea of Peter J. Maguire (although recent research has shown that it might have been his brother Matthew’s idea), a labor union leader who in 1882 proposed a celebration honoring the American worker. Peter Maguire was the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. The date chosen was simply “convenient.” Peter Maguire suggested that this date would nicely fall “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.”
Recent research indicated that Matthew 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. What we do know is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and made it happen!