Celebrate Labor!

Although meant as an annual celebration of U.S. Workers and their achievements, Labor Day now often marks the end of the summer vacation season and children’s return to school. It was first celebrated Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. Some 10,000 workers, who took unpaid time off, assembled and marched from City Hall, past reviewing stands in Union Square.  It was organized by the Central Labor Union, an umbrella group made up of representatives from many local unions. Not unlike today where Labor Day festivities include parades, parties, barbeques and fireworks, the workers and their families in 1882 gathered in New York City for a picnic, concert and speeches.

There is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show it was Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor workers. He had witnessed an annual labor festival in Canada prior to suggesting a similar holiday in the United States. Many people believe that it was Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., who proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. 

Nevertheless, by 1884 similar organizations in other cities followed the example of New York and celebrated a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country. Oregon made Labor Day a legal holiday in 1887, becoming the first state to do so. In 1894, Labor Day was established an official national holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September, by President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress.

This first celebration of U.S. workers originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapter. At the time, most employees worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week in order to make a living. Although some states imposed restrictions on the age of workers, in some other states children as young as 5 or 6 years old were working in mines, factories, and mills, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. Children, the elderly, the poor, and recent immigrants often worked in unsafe working conditions with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facility and breaks.

Instrumental in making changes to these conditions was Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. She accepted the offer from then President-elect, Franklin Roosevelt by setting forth items she wanted to address and change: a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.” During his first term, Roosevelt accomplished all of these goals, except national health insurance.

This year, Labor Day is next Monday, September 4, 2017. Enjoy it and take a moment to remember its origins and honor all workers.

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