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Labor Day - What Does it Mean?

Updated on July 23, 2015

Labor Day, which falls on the 1st Monday in September, has been a federal holiday since 1894. Originally a way to recognize the achievement and contributions of American workers, it has become the unofficial way to mark the end of the summer and the beginning of the new school year. Outdoor pools usually close after this date and many fall sports begin, but what is the history behind the holiday?

Working Conditions in the US.

By the height of the Industrial Revolution the average American worked a 12 hour day, often seven days a week just to make enough money to survive. In some states children were still being employed in the mines, factories and mills for extremely low wages.

Working conditions were often appalling. Limited access to fresh air, insanitary conditions and insufficient breaks as well as often dangerous machinery in factories all led to the beginnings of organized strikes and rallies in support of changes to these conditions.

Puddling Furnace

The puddling furnace revolutionized the way Iron was produced. The life expectancy of puddlers was short because of the terrible conditions they had to work under.
The puddling furnace revolutionized the way Iron was produced. The life expectancy of puddlers was short because of the terrible conditions they had to work under. | Source

Haymarket Riot of 1886


The manufacturing industry soon over took agriculture, increasing the number industrial workers. Labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. Strikes and rallies were organized to protest over the poor conditions. The aim of the rallies was to negotiate hours and pay, but often resulted in violence.

On September 5th 1882 10,000 workers took unpaid time off work to march in New York city. They marched from city Hall to Union Square marking the first Labor Day Parade in the US.

The Haymarket Riot (Chicago) of 1886

A peaceful protest was planned in support of workers request for an eight-hour day. As the police began to disperse the crowd a bomb was thrownA bomb was thrown. This resulted in gun shots being fired and several police and demonstrators were killed, many others were injured.

A harsh anti union feeling followed the riot. There was huge support for the police and many thousands of dollars were donated from businesses to provide funds for the injured police officers medical care and to assist their efforts. Police raids were carried out with many suspects arrested. Eight men were prosecuted and found guilty and seven of them were sentenced to death.The sentencing provoked outrage from labor and workers' movements and their supporters. It resulted in protests around the world.

Protest Grows

On May 11th 1894 the employers of Pullmans Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of Union representatives.

On June 26th of the same year the American Railroad Union led by Eugene V Debs called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. This crippled railroad traffic nationwide. To break this strike the federal government sent troops to Chicago, which resulted in a wave of riots and the deaths of over 12 workers.

Congress grew concerned about the movement and in an attempt to repair ties with the American Workers passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday.

History of Labor Day


The first proposal for a Labor Day celebration included a street parade and a festival for the workers and their families. There were speeches by prominent men and women, barbecues, fireworks displays and parties.

So Where Did the Idea for the Holiday Come From?

Historically here are two people generally attributed with proposing the idea of Labor Day.

One thought is that Matthew Maguire, a machinist proposed the holiday while serving as secretary to the Central Union.

Alternatively, Peter J McGuire, of the American Federation of Labor proposed the Day after witnessing the annual labor festival in Toronto Canada.

Modern Labor Day

Labor Day today usually marks the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year. In fashionable circles it is considered the last day to wear white. It also marks the beginning of several fall sports. NCAA teams usually play their first games the weekend of Labor Day. The NFL traditionally plays their first game the Thursday following Labor Day and Labor Day is the middle point between weeks 1 and 2 of the US Open Tennis Championships held in Flushing Meadows, New York.

Every year on Labor Day, a West Indian carnival is held in Brooklyn, New York. The carnival attracts between one and three million participants. Several Carribean islands are represented in the parade as well as South American countries such as Guyana and a Central American country known as Belize.

Costume from the Labor Day Carnival Parade


© 2014 Ruthbro


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