How Did Labor Day Start?

Labor Day is more than just a day off of work. As you’re making plans for the three-day weekend, don’t forget to tip your cap to the labor movement of the past and thank all the hard workers in your life who made it possible!

Why Do We Celebrate?

Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September to commemorate American workers and the creation of the labor movement in the US. The annual holiday was founded at the peak of the American Industrial Revolution, where child labor laws were yet to be enacted and laborers worked 12+ hours, seven days a week just to fulfill basic needs. This celebration provided a much needed break and morale boost for employees. New York City had the first Labor Day celebration on Sept. 5, 1882, consisting of several unions marching in a parade followed by a massive picnic.

The government first recognized the holiday when municipal ordinances were passed from 1885 to 1886. A movement supportive of the day started shortly thereafter. The first state bill went through the New York state legislature, but Oregon officially passed the bill first in February 1887. Four more states passed Labor Day into law that same year: Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania followed suit by 1890. Twenty-three more states elected the holiday in honor of workers by 1894.

Riots in Chicago involving the Federal Government and several deaths of American Rail Union workers put more prominence on worker rights. This swayed Congress to pass an act legally making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday just two days later.

Who Founded Labor Day?

Over 120 years later, there is still debate about the real architect of Labor Day. Historical evidence, however, puts most emphasis on Peter J. McGuire.

Peter J. McGuire was one of the most prolific leaders of the labor movement. McGuire was born in New York City to poor Irish Catholic immigrants. He quit school at age 11 to work when his father went off to war serving the Union Army. He quickly grew involved in union activism as a young piano maker and met Samuel Gompers, one of the fathers of the labor movement, while attending free night classes at Cooper Union. McGuire eventually founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1881 and was a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor. The DOL credits McGuire with being the first to suggest the day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold” in 1882.
Further contributions to Labor Day were made by Matthew Maguire. Research acknowledges Maguire the New Jersey machinist as an active participant in bringing the holiday to fruition. Maguire was later secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., and allegedly conceived the holiday in 1882 as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, who were commissioned the first Labor Day celebration and picnic mentioned above.
Wherever you may be and whatever you might be doing this Labor Day, be sure to think of workers past and present who have contributed to the strength and prosperity of this country through a dedication to their crafts and a driven commitment to the working class.