The History of Labor Day

Today is Labor Day for those of us living in the United States. Seeing as I am a self-proclaimed history geek, it occurred to me that I didn’t know how Labor Day came about, so I decided to do a little research on this, a holiday I am most grateful for as don’t we all need that extra day off?

Grover Cleveland signed off on Labor Day being an official holiday on 28 June 1894 and it is celebrated on the first Monday of September each year. Oregon was the first to recognize it as an official holiday in 1887 though New York was the first to introduce a bill (New York also celebrated first in 1882). By that first Monday in September 1887, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York also celebrated with the state of Oregon. By the time President Cleveland signed off in 1894, 23 states were recognizing the holiday.

However, it was originally a holiday for federal workers only. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that everyone was granted the day off. And even now stores and restaurants are still open on this day off for the labor force.

Bain News Service, Publisher. Suffragettes – Labor Day ’13. 1913. date created or published later by Bain. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014694076/.

Another Point of View

While doing a bit more research, I stumbled upon a New York Times article where it went into detail stating that the parade that took place 5 September 1882 was really a 1-day strike where workers could have lost their jobs in participating. At the time the American worker spent 12 hours on the job each day, working 7 days a week. Did not matter your age, even children worked long hours. But on the first occurrence of Labor Day, workers marched from City Hall to a giant picnic at an uptown park. The workers were asking for an 8-hour workday and higher wages.

When President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill in 1894 he was hoping to end a Pullman Strike with the mid-west railway system. Pullman had lowered the pay to the workers but did not lower the rent of their homes, and so the workers went on strike.

(I found it interesting that this part was lacking from the Department of Labor website, and even Wikipedia).

Whose Idea?

No one knows who the initial credit goes to for founding Labor Day. Two men have been said to have started the day:

Peter J. McGuire

Peter J. McGuire was the General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Some say he was the person who initially suggested of setting aside a day as a “general holiday for the laboring classes”.

Matthew Maguire

Matthew Maguire was a machinist and the Secretary of the Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey and he proposed the holiday while serving as Secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

A New Jersey paper, the Paterson Morning Call, reported the pen that President Grover Cleveland used to sign the bill into law should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire.

Both McGuire and Maguire attended the first Labor Day parade in New York City that year.

Above information was found using the following websites:

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day

US Department of Labor – https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history

New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-labor-day.html

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