The Purpose and History of Labor Day

Black and white photo of early US Labor Day parade
Early Labor Day Parade. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Labor Day is a public holiday in the United States. Always observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day celebrates and honors the contribution of the American system of organized labor and workers to the prosperity and economic strength of the nation. The Monday of Labor Day, along with the Saturday and Sunday preceding it is known as the Labor Day Weekend and is traditionally considered the end of summer.

As a federal holiday, all but essential national, state, and local government offices are typically closed on Labor Day.

Labor Day is the day to “throw down your tools,” and eat too many hot dogs while thanking American workers for their collective contribution to the strength, prosperity, quality of life, cold beer, and great sales enjoyed across the nation.

In every sense, the underlying meaning of Labor Day is different from that of any other yearly holiday. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another,” said Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor. “Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Not A Day Off For Everybody, by Far

Of course, it should be noted that millions of hard working Americans, like those in the retail and service industries, along with those in law enforcement, public safety, and health care observe Labor Day by working as usual.

Perhaps they deserve the special appreciation of those of us who do get to spend the day eating the hot dogs and drinking the beers.

Who Invented Labor Day? The Carpenters or the Machinists?

More than 130 years after the first Labor Day was observed in 1882, there is still disagreement as to who first suggested the “national day off.”

America’s carpenters and construction workers, along with some historians will tell you that it was Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, who first suggested a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

However, others believe that Matthew Maguire – no relation to Peter J. McGuire – a machinist who would later be elected secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey proposed Labor Day in 1882 while serving as secretary of New York’s Central Labor Union.

Either way, history is clear that the first Labor Day observance was held in accordance with a plan developed by Matthew Maguire’s Central Labor Union.

The First Labor Day

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, l883.

As proposed by the Central Labor Union, the first Labor Day celebration was highlighted by a parade to show the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

In 1884, the Labor Day observance was changed to the first Monday in September as originally proposed by the Central Labor Union. The union then urged other unions and trade organizations to begin holding a similar “workingmen’s holiday” on the same date. The idea caught on, and by 1885, Labor Day observances were being held in industrial centers nationwide.

Labor Day Gains Government Recognition

As with most things involving a potential day off, Labor Day became very popular very fast, and by 1885, several city governments have adopted ordinances calling for local observances.

While New York was the first state legislature to propose official, statewide observance of Labor Day, Oregon was the first state to actually adopt a Labor Day law on February 2l, l887. The same year, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York also enacted Labor Day observance laws, and by 1894, 23 other states followed suit.

Always looking for already popular ideas to get behind, the senators and representatives of the U.S. Congress took note of the growing Labor Day movement and June 28, 1894, passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.

How Labor Day Has Changed

As massive displays and gatherings have become larger problems for public safety agencies, especially in large industrial centers, the character of Labor Day celebrations have changed. However, those changes, as noted by the U.S. Department of Labor, have been more of “a shift in emphasis and medium of expression.” Thanks mainly to television, the internet, and social media, Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics and government officials are delivered directly into the homes, swimming pools, and BBQ pits of Americans nationwide.

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy,” notes the Labor Department. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership -- the American worker.”