The History of Labor Day: An Open Discussion

The History of Labor Day: An Open Discussion


History of Labor Day


The History of Labor Day


Prior to the establishment of Labor Day as a National Holiday in 1894, working conditions in the United States were very poor. Employees, including many children, were often required to work 12 hours a day, six days per week. Supervision was rough and those who talked or sang as they worked could be punished.

Workers staged strikes and rallies for decades after the Civil War. Union leaders in New York City organized what is thought to be the first Labor Day parade on September 5, 1882. It was attended by thousands of union members, mainly tradespeople who took unpaid leave to attend and marched with their locals.

“Working Men on Parade,” read the New York Times’s headline. The article, which appeared on the last page, reported that 10,000 people marched “in an orderly and pleasant manner,” far fewer than the organizers had predicted would attend. On their signs, they called for “Less Work and More Pay,” eight-hour workdays, and a prohibition of the use of convict labor. At noon, the marchers arrived at Reservoir

Park. While some returned to work, most continued to the post-parade at Wendell’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue. The afternoon and evening consisted of speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars, and “Lager beer kegs.”

In 1884, the Knights of Labor adopted a resolution that all future parades be held on the first Monday in September. The Knights then began a campaign to have state legislatures declare the commemoration a legal holiday.

Oregon was the first state to officially recognize Labor Day, passing a law in February 1887. In May of that same year, New York followed suit. By the time President Grover Cleveland signed into law a bill to make Labor Day a national holiday on June 28, 1894, a total of 24 states had adopted laws recognizing Labor Day.

Both Labor Day and May Day grew out of violent clashes between labor and police in the Midwest. The Haymarket Riot, or incident, began on May 1, 1886. Thousands of workers took to the streets of Chicago to demand an eight-hour workday. The demonstration lasted for days ending on May 4 when a bomb exploded killing seven police officers and eight civilians. The event inspired an international gathering of socialists in Paris to declare May Day a holiday honoring worker’s rights and is now known as International Worker’s Day.

Eight years later, in May 1894, workers protested 16-hour workdays and low wages by striking the Pulman Palace Car Company near Chicago. The American Railway Union joined in, refusing to move Pullman cars, crippling rail traffic across the country. Days later President Cleveland signed the bill into law making Labor Day a National Holiday, as mentioned earlier in the article. Cleveland also ordered Federal Troops to Chicago to end the boycott. Strikers began to riot, and National Guard troops fired into the crowd, killing dozens of people.

From the 1880s through the 1950s, Labor Day celebrations were large-scale events with organizers celebrating the contributions of labor but also pressed for reforms such as an eight-hour workday, the end of child labor, and the unionization of labor. They eventually succeed with the New Deal, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited child labor, set a minimum wage, and mandated a shorter workweek, with overtime pay for longer shifts. By the 1940s the average workweek had fallen to five eight-hour days.

While Labor Day is still celebrated with Parades in dozens of cities. The once a big celebration held across the country, is now, for many Americans, a 3-day weekend for workers to celebrate the time off work with backyard barbecues and hours spent at the lake or by enjoying other activities.


Now that we know the history…let’s discuss it!

How can we honor this rich history during our long weekend? How can we hold on and pass down this history so that generations to come can appreciate and celebrate our nation accordingly?

Comment in the section below your thoughts and reflections.



Article Sources:

  1. U.S. Department of Labor
  2. The Progressive Magazine
    Our Example Will Make Them Free.’ The Power Of Labor Day –
  3. Investopedia
    The History of Labor Day (
  4. The New York Times
    What Is Labor Day? A History of the Workers’ Holiday. – The New York Times (ny