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How We Came to Celebrate Labor Day

The very first Labor Day Parade, New York City, 1882. (Public domain image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Library of Congress.)


These days, Labor Day most often means a Monday off school or work (if you’re lucky), backyard barbecues, and maybe a few big Labor Day sales. Locally, as with this year, it may also include a huge blast of late-summer heat.

But many people are not really familiar with Labor Day’s origins, other than that it celebrates American workers.  Or, as Wikipedia puts it:


“Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. “Labor Day” was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City [in 1882]. In 1887, Oregon was the first state of the United States to make it an official public holiday. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty states in the U.S. officially celebrated Labor Day.”


As historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in her “Letters from an American” blog yesterday, that very first Labor Day Parade in 1882 (show above) almost didn’t happen “because  there was no band, and no one wanted to start marching without music.”  But then, writes Richardson, “Once the Jewelers Union of Newark Two showed up with musicians, the rest of the marchers, eventually numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 men and women, fell in behind them to parade through lower Manhattan.”

But the creation of the Labor Day holiday – separate from other, often more radical, May Day labor celebrations around the world – didn’t actually happen until 1894, and had a lot to do with the political situation in the U.S. at the time.

Richardson’s column goes on to explain that President Grover Cleveland won election to the presidency in 1884, two years after the United States’ first Labor Day parade, largely because of his support for labor at a time when, as Cleveland himself described it:


“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor…. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”


In 1888, however, Cleveland lost re-election to Benjamin Harrison, who promised, according to Richardson, “that his would be “A BUSINESS MAN’S ADMINISTRATION,” and said that “before the close of the present Administration business men will be thoroughly well content with it.”

But the workers vs. capitalists tensions continued, and in 1892, Cleveland won back the presidency in a “Democratic landslide.”  This time, though,  business interests were better entrenched, and many of his more pro-labor policies (including an income tax) were struck down by the Supreme Court.  Also, at the same time, as a story in today’s Washington Post explains, Cleveland was dealing with the “long and bitter” Pullman workers’ strike in Chicago, which involved 250,000 workers in 27 states, and also pitted Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor against Eugene Debs’ more radical American Railway Union.   So Cleveland wanted to both demonstrate his continued support for workers, according to the Post, “while blunting the power of the more radical May Day crowd.”

With Cleveland’s support, the Democratic Congress passed the new Labor Day bill, and Cleveland signed it on June 28, 1894.  Of course, that wasn’t the end of labor struggles in the U.S., or even the increasingly violent Pullman strike (read more about it here), but it is why many American workers now get a day off on the first Monday in September, while other countries more commonly celebrate their laborers in May.


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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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