For most Americans today, Labor Day signifies the unofficial end to the summer season, the start of a new school year, and a day off from work to squeeze in that last beach day barbecue. But to the labor movement in the late 19th century, this was a crucial day that set the precedent for all of today’s workers.

The first Monday in September is dedicated to the social and economic achievements and contributions of American workers that made the strength, freedom, leadership, prosperity, and well-being of our country a reality. The working life for an American didn’t always consist of forty-hour workweeks and two day weekends, but Labor Day marks the celebrations of overcoming those challenges.  

The Problem

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, Americans worked twelve-hour days for seven days a week to make a decent living. And, it wasn’t just adults who worked these hours, children did, as well, for a fraction of what the adults were making. The working conditions weren’t safe either, as everyone worked in unsafe conditions, weren’t given proper breaks, and the areas weren’t very sanitary. You can get a sense of how bad labor conditions were here.

The Fight

Because labor conditions were so poor, labor unions started to appear and grew more vocal about worker’s rights (you can check out my biography to read more about labor unions). Many unions began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and encouraged employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these strikes and rallies turned violent, as police officers and workers were killed during these events.

The First Celebration

In coordination with the Central Labor Union, an early trade organization which is now part of the AFL-CIO union, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City to demand a  “workingmen’s holiday.” This was the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

A Timeline of How Labor Day Got Passed

The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” caught on in other industrial areas across the country. Because of the widespread strikes and rallies, the government started to give recognition to this issue.

  • The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances, which are rules, regulations, and codes enacted into law by the local government, passed during 1885 and 1886.
  • The first state to enact Labor Day was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887.
  • Four more states followed that year to enact the holiday — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
  • By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania enacted the law.
  • In 1894, twenty-three other states adopted the holiday.
  • Finally on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday.

How It’s Celebrated

For years, Labor Day was recognized with a street parade and a festival to showcase the strength and spirit of trade and labor organizations. Over time, speeches by prominent men and women were introduced as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. The Labor Day celebrations of today are nothing like what it used to be years ago. You can find most people relaxing at home or, if they’re lucky, relaxing on the beach listening to the waves crashing on the shore.

Stephen Koppekin Consulting provides cost-effective and efficient consulting solutions in the areas of labor and employment.  With his expert ability to negotiate and his solution-based mindset, Stephen Koppekin shares his vast knowledge on his consulting website.