Labor Day 2018: What is the US holiday and why was it created?

Holiday inaugurated in late 19th century celebrates American worker

People watch a fireworks show in Queens, New York
People watch a fireworks show in Queens, New York

Labor Day takes place on the first Monday of September every year and honours the American worker.

While many associate the occasion with the end of summer and an opportunity for parades, parties, picnics, cookouts and shopping sprees, the day was inaugurated in the late 19th century out of respect for organised labor and the rights of the individual.

Here’s everything you need to know about the date and its origins.

What is Labor Day?

The US Department of Labor describes the holiday, this year taking place on 3 September, as “a creation of the Labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers”.

Federal offices are closed across the country and the US Postal Service delivers no mail.

Samuel Gompers, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, explained its distinction from other national days accordingly:

“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. Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.”

Canada also marks the same occasion while the European equivalent is International Workers’ Day on 1 May.

When did Labor Day become a national holiday?

There is some debate over who first proposed Labor Day.

Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and vice president of the American Federation of Labor, is often credited with putting forward the initial idea in spring 1882. However, Matthew Maguire, machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) in New York has also been posited as an alternative source.

The first Labor Day was duly held on 5 September 1882 in New York City at the instigation of the CLU, with a street parade held in Union Square.

Other cities followed suit and Oregon became the first state to make it an official holiday in 1887. By 1894, 34 states observed the date, prompting the president, Grover Cleveland, to sign a bill into law that June making it an official national holiday.

Why was the holiday so timely?

President Cleveland’s bill coincided with one of the darkest episodes in the history of American industrial relations: the Pullman Strike.

The result of unrest born of poor working conditions and wages, the dispute saw 4,000 American Railway Union (ARU) workers employed at the Pullman Company plant on Chicago’s South Side engage in a series of wildcat strikes between 11 May and 20 July 1894.

Pullman, a manufacturer of railroad cars, ran the local community as a company town, refusing to let its employees own their own homes. When it sacked operatives and slashed wages without lowering rents and utility bills, its staff downed tools in protest.

Eugene V Debs, head of the newly formed ARU, subsequently stopped the movement of cars to railroads and called for the boycott of all trains that towed a Pullman carriage, the disorder resulting hit all railway lines west of Detroit, Michigan, with 250,000 workers in 27 states joining the cause.

The company stood firm and refused to recognise the protests, resulting in rioting in which 37 people were killed, 57 injured and $80m of damage caused. Cleveland had to send in the US Army to restore order.

Labor Day thus played an important role in stabilising, resetting and advancing America’s relationship with its working men and women in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments