The Meaning of Labor Day

For many of us, Labor Day means the end of summer vacation, a guilt-trip for anyone wearing white, and an excuse for department stores to have sales. But, it’s important to keep in mind the true history behind this holiday: Labor Day is a celebration of laborers, introduced at a time when labor meant something far more grueling than it generally does today.

In the United States, Labor Day falls on the first Monday in September, but for anyone living outside of North America, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1.

The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. About 10,000 union workers marched in a parade to honor American workers, who at the time were without the labor laws we now take for granted. This early celebration was the catalyst that spread Labor Day sentiment across America.

Beginning with Oregon in 1887, a number of states adopted Labor Day as a legal holiday. Unfortunately, the holiday alone didn’t remedy the labor situation in Industrial Revolution era America. In 1894 the entire railroad system was compromised by the strike and boycott against the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railroad company guilty of terrible treatment of their workers. In response to the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to take action, which escalated the violence and caused several deaths. It was in the midst of this strike that President Cleveland, passed a bill that made Labor Day a national holiday.

Elsewhere in the world, laborers are honored on May Day (May 1), also known as International Workers’ Day. Oddly enough, the events that inspired this holiday also happened in the United States. Countries worldwide adopted the holiday in response to the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Although it began as a peaceful protest, the demonstration turned violent when police retaliated against the Chicago workforce.

Whether you’re barbecuing with friends and family, or just enjoying some rest and relaxation, now you have the knowledge to take a moment and remember what Labor Day is all about.