Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?
The first Monday of September means that white clothes are out, sales are in, summer holidays are over and classes begin. For many of us (but far from all of us), it’s a welcome day off of work or school, ahead of what is likely to be a busier month than the last. But the Labor Day holiday has a storied past, one of violence and celebration, that’s embedded deep in the history of the American labor movement. And while it has spread around the world in different forms, Labor Day has distinctly American roots.
Labor Day is a day of rest or the last chance for many people to go on trips before the summer ends. For students, it is the last chance to organize parties before school starts again. In some neighborhoods, people organize fireworks displays, barbecues and public arts or sports events. The football season starts on or around Labor Day and many teams play their first game of the year during Labor Day weekend.
The modern holiday is widely traced back to an organized parade in New York City in 1882. Union leaders had called for what they had labelled a “monster labor festival” on Tuesday, Sept. 5, according to Linda Stinson, a former historian for the Department of Labor (the idea for a general labor festival may have originated in Canada, which today also celebrates “Labour Day” on the first Monday in September). Initially that morning, few people showed up, and organizers worried that workers had been reluctant to surrender a day’s pay to join the rally. But soon the crowds began flowing in from across the city, and by the end of the day some 10,000 people had marched in the parade and joined festivities afterward in what the press dubbed “a day of the people.”
The practice of holding annual festivities to celebrate workers spread across the country, but Labor Day didn’t become a national holiday for more than a decade. Oregon became the first state to declare it a holiday in 1887, and states like New York, Massachusetts and Colorado soon followed suit. Under President Grover Cleveland, and amid growing awareness of the labor movement, the first Monday in September became a national holiday in 1896.