We all look forward to that long weekend at the beginning of September. The one that celebrates Labor Day… or is it Memorial Day?

Labor Day is the first Monday in September; it is a federal holiday that is often celebrated with day-drinking and barbecues. For a lot of people, it’s really just a long weekend. But, do you know why we get this extra day added to our weekend? Popular Pittsburgh has put together a brief history of the holiday so that you can appreciate the day off just a little bit more.

What Does Labor Day Mean?

The Department of Labor (DOL) notes that the “original form of the holiday was a street parade to show the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ followed by a large picnic to provide some fun for workers and their families.”

Likewise, the DOL defines the holiday as a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

And what does that mean? To answer that, we need to understand the labor movement. The holiday was created by the labor movement in the late 1800s.

The Labor Movement

The late 19th century was the height of the American Industrial Revolution. People were leaving their farms for higher wages as factory workers. As factories became more common and widespread, the supply for jobs increased. This began a chain reaction.

Most factories were located near cities, which often resulted in the need for more urban housing. That then led to improvements in city planning. The low cost of steel allowed for the development of modern infrastructure—railroads, bridges, and dams—that urban growth demanded. Those developments likewise provided more employment opportunities.

However, as these advancements progressed, working conditions began to deteriorate. The average American would work 12-hour days six or seven days a week. Breaks were minimal. Child labor was rampant. People of all ages faced unsafe working conditions and increasing air pollution. As workers became more disgruntled, labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. In protest of the dangerous working conditions, they organized strikes and rallies. Labor unions use these tactics to urge employers to renegotiate hours, pay, and benefits to this day.

Creation of a National Labor Day

Labor Day as a holiday came slowly. Many cite New York City on Monday, September 5, 1882 as the first Labor Day celebration. Some 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square. That parade became a yearly tradition.

The first governmental recognition of Labor Day as a holiday came in 1885 and 1886 with the passing of municipal ordinances. From there, New York became the first state to introduce a bill for the holiday into the state legislature. However, Oregon was the first state to officially institute the holiday on February 21, 1887. By the end of the decade, seven other states (out of 42) had followed suit, and 23 more by 1994. President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law as a federal holiday on June 28, 1894.

The Father of Labor Day

Who was the first to propose a holiday for workers? To be honest, it’s a bit unclear.

Most records attribute the idea to Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. After organizing the 1882 march, McGuire led the great strikes of 1886 and 1890. His leading platform was the universal adoption of eight-hour workdays. While Peter McGuire was a well-respected union leader, recent research has uncovered evidence of a different founder of the holiday.

The Department of Labor cites information from the New Jersey Historical Society, which indicates another respected figure of the labor movement is responsible. Matthew Maguire was the leader of several labor strikes in the 1870s, and he became the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York by 1882. The New Jersey Historical Society presents the Paterson, New Jersey newspaper, Morning Call, as evidence of Maguire’s founding title.

An opinion piece entitled, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” was published after President Cleveland signed a national Labor Day into law. This piece stated that “the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

Some historians believe Matthew Maguire was overlooked as the “Father of Labor Day” due to his radical (at the time) political beliefs. Allegedly, Samuel Gompers, the other co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, attributed the credit to his close friend, Peter McGuire, because he did not want Labor Day to be associated with Maguire’s politics.

Bonus Information: Labor Unions Today

Membership in labor unions grew until it reached its peak in the 1950s when 33% of the workforce belonged to a union. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 only 10.8% of workers belong to a union. Government workers make up approximately 34.8% of union members; 6.3% of union members are private workers.

By Janice L. Palko