What is now an opportunity for those who have this United States federal holiday off (meaning those not working in restaurants and bars, changing the sheets in hotels and short-term rentals, mucking out stalls for visitor trail rides, or working in news organizations) is celebrated on the first Monday in September.
Its purpose: to honor and recognize the American labor movement, as well as the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States.
The First Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the city’s Central Labor Union. It held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. This was a local movement that swept the nation.
After New York City passed municipal ordinances in 1885 and 1886, there was a movement in the state of New York to secure state legislation. While New York was the first state to introduce a bill, the state of Oregon was the first to pass a law recognizing Labor Day, on February 21, 1887.
Then in 1887, four more states – Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York – passed laws creating a Labor Day holiday.
By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday.
It is important to remember the context of this holiday. It evolved out of the social revolution at the end of the 19th century as industrialization swept the country, and “captains of industry” became rich beyond belief on the backs of workers. Rural families and immigrants flocked to the cities, working in dangerous, sweatshop conditions that had even young children working six-days-a-week for 12-hour days.
There was no minimum wage, no safety measures, no health insurance, no vacation pay, no child labor laws. Unions came into being to advocate for a raised standard of living for ordinary workers.
Unions’ support of the American worker has contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known. In fact, economists and capitalists have admitted that the labor movement has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy than anything else in the evolution of this country.
It is appropriate that today, the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.