Labor Day Purpose and History

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 Key Takeaways

  • Labor Day is a national holiday in the United States always observed on the first Monday in each September.
  • Labor Day is observed to celebrate the contributions of organized labor and workers to the prosperity of the U.S. economy.
  • The first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, while Oregon was the first state to actually adopt a Labor Day law on February 2l, l887.
  • The United States Congress declared Labor Day a federal holiday on June 28, 1894.

Along with the day’s historical significance, Americans tend to consider Labor Day as marking the “unofficial end of summer.” Many people wrap their vacations around Labor Day in anticipation of fall activities, like the start of school and cool-weather sports.

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 devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

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, 1883.

By 1894, the legislatures of 23 more states had adopted the observance as a holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday on June 28, 1894.

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” of the city. A festival for “the recreation and amusement” of the workers and their families followed the parade. This parade and festival arrangement became the pattern for the observance of Labor Day.

Later, speeches by prominent politicians sympathetic to the organized labor cause were added, as the emphasis shifted to the economic and civic importance of the holiday. At the 1909 convention of the American Federation of Labor, a resolution was adopted declaring the Sunday before Labor Day be observed as Labor Sunday, a passive observance of the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

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.

Not to Be Confused With International Workers’ Day

In 1866, International Workers’ Day or “May First” was established an alternative holiday for the celebration of organized labor. Observed annually on May 1, the day was created by a resolution during the 1884 convention of the American Federation of Labor in Chicago.

Today, International Worker’s Day is celebrated annually on the first day of May due to its proximity to the date of the bloody Chicago Haymarket Affair labor demonstration and bombing of May 4, 1886.

Some labor unions of the day felt that International Workers’ Day was a more appropriate tribute to the struggles of their cause than Labor Day, which they considered a frivolous picnic-and-parade day. However, conservative Democratic President Grover Cleveland feared that a holiday to honor labor on May 1 would become a negative commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, rather than a positive celebration of how the nation benefited from labor.

Today, the first day of May is still observed in many countries as “International Workers' Day,” or more often as “Labour Day.”

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 pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership— the American worker.”

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Longley, Robert. "Labor Day Purpose and History." ThoughtCo, May. 1, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, May 1). Labor Day Purpose and History. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Labor Day Purpose and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).