Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday held the first Monday every September. Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.
The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become. The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.
History of Labor Day
The first Labor Day occurred in 1882 in New York City under the direction of that city’s Central Labor Union.
In the 1800s, unions covered only a small fraction of workers and were balkanized and relatively weak. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union and more modern-day counterparts like the AFL-CIO was to bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.
However, the organizers had a large problem: No government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. The issue was solved temporarily by declaring a one-day strike in the city. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards.
The New York Tribune’s reporter covering the event felt the entire day was like one long political barbecue, with “rather dull speeches.”
Why was Labor Day invented?
Labor Day came about because workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.
In the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average. Sixty years later, in 1890, hours of work had dropped, although the average manufacturing worker still toiled in a factory 60 hours a week.
These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day. They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.
These early organizers clearly won since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.
Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners were actually in favor of giving workers more time off. That’s because workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out.
As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.
The common misconception is that since Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey all declared a special legal holiday in September to celebrate workers.
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- Header Image The first Labor Day was hardly a national holiday. Workers had to strike to celebrate it. Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper's September 16, 1882