What Is Labor Day? 5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Federal Holiday

Mª del Rosario Castro Díaz Mª del Rosario Castro Díaz

What Is Labor Day? 5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Federal Holiday

Celebrated on the first Monday of September, the holiday pays tribute to the achievements of all American workers.

For many in the U.S., Labor Day weekend symbolizes the end of summer and is usually celebrated with parties, street parades, and all kinds of events. The federal holiday, however, was created in the late 1800s by the labor movement and constitutes an annual tribute to the contributions workers have made to the “strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

This year, Labor Day is particularly significant as we celebrate the work of thousands of brave health professionals and frontline workers who have helped the country stay strong throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some things to know about the important federal holiday:

What does Labor Day mean?

It took years of hard-fought battles for U.S. workers to achieve all the benefits we enjoy today including having paid holidays, weekends off and even having a lunch break.  Labor Day serves as a day off to reflect on all the social and economic achievements all workers have fought hard to accomplish.

Why does it always fall on a Monday?

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 changed several holidays to ensure they would always fall on a Monday so that federal employees could have more three-day weekends. Other holidays that were also moved to a Monday by the act included President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day.

Why do we celebrate it?

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 19th century, the majority of American workers did 12-hour shifts seven days a week in order to make a living. With no labor legislation, young children between 5 and 6 worked away at mills, factories and mines across the country earning a quarter of their adult counterparts.  Many workers, especially the very poor and immigrants, faced hard working conditions with no sanitary facilities, breaks and, very often, little fresh air.

In light of these unsafe conditions, workers began organizing themselves in labor unions, organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and push employers to renegotiate wages and benefits.

While many of these events gave rise to violent events such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in which many Chicago workers and policemen were killed, others gave rise to long-standing traditions. Such is the case of the Knights of Labor, who on September 5, 1882, held the first Labor Day parade. The union gathered 10,000 workers who took unpaid time off from work and marched from City Hall to Union Square.

From then on, the idea of a “workingmen’s holiday” held on the first Monday of September caught the attention of other industrial centers across the country and the holiday was taken up in many states without legislation recognizing it. Congress would not legalize it until 12 years later.

Who created Labor Day?

It is unclear who exactly came up with the concept of Labor Day as a holiday. Many credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, with having created it while others suggest it was Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday.

While the creator of Labor Day is yet to be identified, their work certainly paid off when Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday and  President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894.

What is the difference between Labor Day and May Day?

May 1, the anniversary of the Haymarket Riot, was chosen by Communist and Socialist parties to designate the “International Workers’ Day” often referred to “Labour Day” in many countries but also popularly known as “May Day.”  The date had been chosen by the American Federation of Labor to continue the campaign for the eight-hour day in the United States, which had culminated in the Haymarket Affair,  subsequently marking May Day as an annual event. Later in 1904, a conference issued a plea for trade unions to stage rallies on the first day of May demanding to make the eight-hour workday standard in the name of “universal peace.” Because of this tradition, many countries celebrate Labour Day on May 1. Other countries including Canada, however, celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September like the U.S.

[Featured image: @arthurpalac via Pixabay]

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