Monday, September 7, 2009

10 Things You May Not Know About Labor Day

Here is an essay about the origins of Labor Day.

10 Things You May Not Know About Labor Day

On Monday, September 7, 2009, Americans will again celebrate Labor Day. On the first Monday of every September each year, federal buildings close, liquor stores open early, people shine up their boats for a final time that year, and everyone in their red, white, and blue polo-shirts commemorate Labor Day. Like many holidays, few actually know anything about the holiday’s genesis, its founders, or the first time citizens marked the day in their calendars. Still, it occurs every year, whether anyone knows why or not. For anyone interested in a conversation starter this Labor Day, here are 10 things you may not know about Labor Day, in no particular order.

#1: Americans did not originally celebrate Labor Day as a national holiday. The Central Labor Union organized the first official Labor Day celebrations in 1882 without the aid of local, state, or national legislation.

#2: The creator of Labor Day is unknown. Some have argued that Peter J. McGuire, a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, came up with the idea for a labor holiday. Others, however, give the title to Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union.

#3: Labor Day has not always been on a Monday. The Central Labor Union’s first Labor Day occurred on September 5, 1882, a Tuesday. Not until 1884 did the Central Labor Union designate the first Monday of September as the official date.

#4: Oregonians were the first citizens to celebrate Labor Day as an official state holiday. After Labor Day legislation had been passed by several municipal governments, some states began a push to make it a state holiday. Although New York introduced the first bill, Oregon became the first state to institute a state holiday. Oregon’s legislation passed the Labor Day bill in 1887, and by 1894, 23 states had similar bills.

#5: Labor Day as a national holiday resulted from conflict between the federal government and labor unions. In 1894, workers for the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike. Fearing the detrimental effects that a railroad strike could have on the postal service and public safety, President Grover Cleveland sent in U.S. Marshals and some 12,000 troops under the command of Nelson Miles, a man made famous from his exploits fighting Native Americans in the West throughout the previous decades. Ultimately, 13 strikers were killed and another 57 injured. Cleveland recognized his misstep in angering the labor movement and pushed to create Labor Day as a federal holiday. Only 6 days after the end of the Pullman strike, Congress passed a law to establish Labor Day.

#6: Why is Labor Day in September? Although most today see Labor Day as the de facto end date for summer, the architects behind the holiday did not pick September for this reason. The Central Labor Union actually picked the date because it ran concurrent with a Knights of Labor conference being held in New York, which organizers believed would help promote turnout to the Labor Day activities.

#7: The first Labor Day was more of a protest than a celebration. The first celebration featured a parade in New York City, but the Central Labor Union required its members to march in order to garner support for the 8-hour workday.

#8: What about May Day or International Worker’s Day? Labor Day found a challenge from another holiday known by most as May Day. May 1st marked the commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in 1886, when a dozen workers were killed protesting unfair hours and calling for a universal 8-hour work day. Although May Day had an origin in the U.S., it has more recently been associated with socialist movements around the world especially in the former Soviet Union. However, Cold Warriors did help to make May 1st a national holiday in 1958, but not for its connection to the labor movement. That year, Congress created Loyalty Day. The legislation for this holiday states that Loyalty Day is “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.”

#9: Who is celebrated on Labor Day? Technically speaking, all working Americans over the age of 16 are part of the workforce celebrated by Labor Day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 155.1 million workers in May of 2009.

And finally…

#10: The idea for Labor Day came from…the Canadians! As the story goes, Peter J. McGuire, one of the possible creators of the idea for a Labor Day, actually got the idea from Canada. In the early 1870s, labor disputes in the country led to parades in support of the labor movement. These parades continued each year to commemorate the victory that the labor movement had won in Canada. In 1882, McGuire reportedly witnessed one of these parades in Toronto and returned to the U.S. to promote a similar activity.

When you bring the boat in from the reservoir this year after the first Monday in September, you now know that the date is merely a coincidence, not the purposeful demarcation of the end of summer. Regardless of that coincidence, Labor Day has become an important holiday for Americans, and the yearly commemoration honoring the struggles of the labor movement of the past 130 years should not be forgotten while barbequing or watching your favorite college football team’s home opener. So, this Labor Day make sure to be safe, have fun, and don’t forget to thank the Canadians for a day off from work.

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