History

The 2-minute history of Labor Day in America

On the first Monday of every September, we gather with those we are closest to and celebrate the three-day weekend caused by Labor Day. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and beer mark the last big outdoor celebration most of the nation enjoys until spring. There’s another cause for celebration on that day, however — one that has been lost among the barbecues and car sales.

Why we started celebrating Labor Day may have been lost on most people, but the reasoning is still there. To help those curious minds realize the point of the holiday, let’s speed through a brief history to explain the who, the what, and the why of Labor Day.

It all started with a revolution

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It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when the United States didn’t thrive on factories and big business industries. Everything was on a much smaller scale. Then the Industrial Revolution hit. Prior to that, people spent a reasonable amount of time perfecting their skill or craft, but the advent of factories and mills changed that forever.

In the late 1800s, the average workday was 12 hours long, and the workweek spanned all seven days. Workers were pushed beyond their limits, regardless of age. State restrictions were intended to keep children out of factories, but it didn’t stop some as young as five or six from working in dangerous fields.

In response to the unsafe and unfair working conditions, a measure was taken to appease workers.

The rise of unions

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In a factory setting, employees had no voice. They did as they were told without question and without someone to represent their interests. Concerns over employee wages and safety led to the creation of labor unions. With the well-being of employees in mind, labor unions went toe-to-toe with employers. Sometimes things were changed. More often than not, they remained the same. In those instances, employees took matters into their own hands.

In the 1880s, as labor unions became more vocalized, workers gathered for rallies and strikes. Chicago's Haymarket Riot of 1886 was a significant (and, sadly, deadly) moment in time that led to a very peculiar holiday.

Striking to make a point

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With no promise of changes anytime soon, workers resorted to staging events. The intention was to remain heard with their demands, which resulted in an outcry. On September 5, 1882, thousands of workers gathered at City Hall in New York to stage a protest march to Union Square.

September 5 was the first Monday of the month,  marking the first unofficial Labor Day. Rather than skip home and make hamburgers, many remained in New York City where they formed the first Labor Day parade. The workers, who were already living on minimum salaries, took time off without pay, which further showed their commitment.

Though not quite a holiday yet, the movement to strike on September 5 was hard to ignore. In fact, it inspired others to follow suit. On May 11, 1894, Pullman Palace Car Company employees went on strike in response to pay cuts and dismissal of union representatives.

With employee unrest scattered across the nation, it was only a matter of time before a higher power took action.

An act of Congress

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Widespread issues with employee/employer relations weren’t something that could be brushed aside. It’s unclear who, but a mastermind with links to the United States Congress pushed to have a specific day out of the year dedicated to the workers. Who that individual was is unknown, though American Federation of Labor co-founder Peter J. McGuire is the most popular suggestion while Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union, remains a second choice.

Regardless of who it may be, they were responsible for the national holiday that, more than a century later, we still celebrate.

Employee/employer relations around the globe

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There are still improvements the United States can make to its relationship between employee/employer issues. For reference, it may be worth looking at nations across the globe. For instance, nations like Greece and Hungary require employees to take two full days off before returning to work. In the United States, it could be an entire year before an employee gets to enjoy a vacation. The next big offender is Mexico, which has a 60-day gap between vacations. Countries like Finland and France are more generous, offering an average of 12 days of work between a suitable vacation.

Labor Day today

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There are many areas the United States is falling behind in, including minimum wage and overtime. What’s most ironic about Labor Day is that there is no guarantee a worker will have it off. Though it’s a federally recognized holiday, retail shops and other employers are not required to offer it as a day off.