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Labor Day Celebrates the American Worker

A brief history of the holiday that the Central Labor Union first held in 1882.

Labor Day is here and millions of people across the country will celebrate through the three-day weekend. Whether it’s by going on picnics, firing up the grill, or taking a trip to the beach, pretty much everyone will be celebrating the unofficial end of summer.

But have you ever wondered why we actually celebrate Labor Day and how this holiday came about? We’ve got some answers for you.

Labor Day, which is on the first Monday in September each year, was started in 1882 as the finished result of the “labor movement” and was planned to be a “day of rest” to recognize the strain and sweat of the everyday working man.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the holiday is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

Who started Labor Day?

The history of Labor Day is rich, slightly in-depth, and not without controversy. According to the DOL, there is some question as to who started the holiday.

Many historians usually give the credit to Peter J. McGuire –who was the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor –as the man who is given credit for the idea of the holiday. However, other historians have looked at a mechanist named Matthew Maguire as the man to hold accountable for the holiday while he was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Despite the arguments over who deserves the credit, it was, in the long run, the Central Labor Union that adopted a Labor Day suggestion and named a committee to organize an official celebration on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City, New York.

On June 28, 1884, the U.S. Congress passed an act making it a national holiday. From 1885 to 1886 municipalities around the country began adopting Labor Day ordinances. The DOL explained that Labor Day was celebrated communally with street parades, trade and labor exhibits and, “festivals for the recreation and amusements of the workers and their families.” Emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.

In the early years of Labor Day, the emphasis of celebrating the working public was so strong that the American Federation of Labor – Peter McGuire's organization – resolved to have the Sunday proceeding Labor Day be known as “Labor Sunday,” a day dedicated to the “spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.”

Why is it in September?

The first Monday of September was named the date of the holiday because the day occurred halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. This idea became popular with various labor unions and local governments around the country, and towns gradually came to adopt Labor Day as an official holiday before the notion gained support and developed into a national holiday.

Learn more about the history of Labor Day, such as the true story of Rosie the Riveter at the DOL website.

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