Just as Memorial Day has become the unofficial start of summer, Labor Day has become its unofficial end. Unlike holidays that commemorate an event, Labor Day was a planned holiday dating from the 1880s. To get a sense for this, think about the past. Just try to imagine yourself as a worker in the 1880s. There were long hours, a workday did not go from 9 to 5, there were no regular vacations, no protection from injury on the job, often hard labor. This was daily life for many people since the Industrial Revolution began. Labor Unions were the result of exploited (overworked and underpaid) workers banding together. If one guy quits, work goes on. If everyone quits, somebody’s got to listen! So groups of workers formed unions to get organized and to begin to bargain for more appropriate working conditions.
Credit for Labor Day goes to either Peter McGuire or Matthew Maquire. Both men were laborers associated with unions: McGuire with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Maquire with the Central Labor Union (CLU). Whoever actually first suggested it, Maguire’s CLU was behind the first Labor Day in 1882.
It may seem hard to imagine now, what with all the free time people have to sit in front of the computer or television, that there was a time when a day off work could become a national holiday. But on September 5, 1882, the Central Labor Union held its holiday in New York City – the home of many unions. Less than 10 years later, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed in the first Monday in September as a legal holiday. Public support ran high for Labor Day, but some favored a May 1 celebration.
As an observance, Labor Day was simply for the enjoyment of a day off. The holiday has a special poignancy given the persistence of unemployment over the past several years. Although Labor Day has no religious basis, the fact is that many of us have been taught that our self-worth lies in our work, our contribution to the good of the whole. For those of us who have been forced into stints of unemployment, Labor Day seems less a holiday than a reminder of what we lack. Have we evolved a society that has outlived the need for a Labor Day?