September 1, 2023

It’s Labor Day Weekend! Check out some facts about this holiday’s origin

Mary Apel

Don’t forget we’ve got a long weekend ahead! Labor Day, observed annually on the first Monday in September, serves as a celebration of the social and economic accomplishments achieved by American workers. The holiday traces its origins back to the late nineteenth century when labor activists fought to establish a federal holiday to acknowledge the immense contributions made by workers to America’s prosperity, strength, and well-being.

Click here to hear this speech.

Prior to its federal recognition, Labor Day garnered recognition from labor activists and individual states. In 1885 and 1886, municipal ordinances were passed, paving the way for a movement aimed at securing state legislation. While New York was the first state to propose a bill, it was Oregon that took the lead in officially recognizing Labor Day on February 21, 1887. Subsequently, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York passed laws establishing Labor Day as a holiday during the same year. Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania followed suit by the end of the decade. By 1894, an additional 23 states had embraced the holiday, leading to the passage of an act by Congress on June 28, 1894, designating the first Monday in September each year as a legal holiday.

McGuire or Maguire?
The exact originator of the holiday remains somewhat undecided, but two workers emerge as strong claimants for the title of “Founder of Labor Day.” Historical records suggest that in 1882, Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, proposed the concept of a “general holiday for the laboring classes.” He intended to honor those individuals “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” However, McGuire’s role in Labor Day’s history has not gone unchallenged. Many contend that Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, was the true originator of the holiday. Serving as the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882, Maguire is believed to have put forth the idea for Labor Day. Recent research supports this contention. The Paterson Morning Call, following President Cleveland’s signing of the law establishing a national Labor Day, published an opinion piece crediting Alderman Matthew Maguire as the undisputed author of the holiday. Both Maguire and McGuire attended the inaugural Labor Day parade held in New York City that same year.

McGuire and Maguire

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, as planned by the Central Labor Union. Just a year later, on September 5, 1883, the Central Labor Union organized the second Labor Day holiday. By 1894, with an additional 23 states embracing the holiday, President Grover Cleveland signed a law on June 28, 1894, establishing the first Monday in September as a national holiday.

To mark Labor Day, many Americans partake in parades and festivities, reminiscent of the early proposals for the holiday. These initial suggestions emphasized a street parade to showcase the community’s trade and labor organizations’ unity and spirit, followed by recreational and amusement activities for workers and their families.

This framework has remained the template for Labor Day celebrations. Over time, speeches by prominent figures were introduced, highlighting the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Additionally, the American Federation of Labor convention in 1909 passed a resolution designating the Sunday preceding Labor Day as Labor Sunday, focusing on the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

The American labor force has elevated the nation’s standard of living and created unparalleled global productivity. It is fitting that we take a day to pay homage to the American worker, who has been instrumental in shaping the country’s strength, freedom, and leadership.

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