A History of Labor Day - William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital
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William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital


A History of Labor Day

Spectators watch Labor Day Parade processional on Main Street in Buffalo, NY, circa 1900.

Spectators watch Labor Day Parade processional on Main Street in Buffalo, NY, circa 1900.

By Suzanne Filipak
Friday, September 2, 2011

Along with putting away your white shoes for the year, do you know what we are celebrating? Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September (September 5th this year), honors American workers’ social and economic achievements. Many also regard Labor Day as the unofficial end of the summer.

The first Labor Day was observed on August 26, 1878 in Boston, and was hosted by the Nation’s first integrated major Trade Union.  Although Labor unions themselves celebrated the first labor days in the United States, there is some speculation as to who exactly came up with the idea of the yearly commemoration. Most historians credit Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, with the original idea of a day for workers to show their solidarity. Others credit Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J.

Regardless of who founded the holiday, it became a popular festivity, and the first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature. However, the first state to pass the Labor Day celebrations as an official state-wide holiday was Oregon, passed on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had also joined the movement. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year under President Grover Cleveland, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the remainder of the United States.

During the first celebration, a street parade was organized, with some 10,000 workers assembled in New York City to participate in America's first Labor Day parade.  Workers and their families enjoyed barbeques, a festival and a concert following the parade. These traditions are still honored, with many parades and barbeques held as celebrations for friends and families.

Membership in labor unions in the United States reached an all-time high in the 1950s when about 40% of the workforce belonged to unions. Today, union membership consists of approximately 14 % of the working population.  Nonetheless, this year while you are enjoying brats and burgers, take a minute to appreciate the true meaning of Labor Day—the contributions made by American workers to ensure the strength, prosperity, and well-being of America!



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