A Short History of Labor Day

Many of our federal holidays are declared in recognition of some historical event – the Fourth of July, Christmas and Columbus Day are good examples.  Labor Day and Memorial Day are two patriotic holidays that have grown out of the activities of the America people.  Earlier this year we blogged about the history of Memorial Day; today we look at Labor Day. The Labor Day holiday evolved out of the activities of the developing labor movement at the end of the 19th century.  Labor supporters had developed a tradition of holding parades, picnics and other events to rally strikers or to show support for specific labor issues.  In New York, the Central Labor Union was a group made up of members from many labor unions.  Early in 1882, the Central Labor Union decided to hold a parade and picnic as festival in support of labor sometime in September.  By August, a union committee had selected the park and the date – Tuesday, September 5 1882 –for the celebration and the union passed a resolution “that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city.”  The celebration was a huge success and it was resolved to continue the celebration annually. By 1884, the union had selected the first Monday in September as the official holiday and were urging unions in other cities to celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread quickly by 1885 Labor Day was being celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

laboray.JPG Port Townsend Morning Leader September 6, 1910 The celebrations continued as a workingmen’s holiday without government recognition for a decade until the American Railway Union strike against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company in the early 1890’s.  That strike affected the country so deeply that it resulted in congressional action to honor the labor movement and in 1894; President Grover Cleveland signed the law marking the first Monday in September as Labor Day. The holiday was observed nationwide, including here on the Olympic Peninsula where in the early part of the twentieth century Irondale was an important iron producer and employer of over 400 people.   Articles in the Port Townsend Morning Leader near the turn of the century occasionally mentioned labor issues such as the desire of retail clerks for Sunday closure.  While we know the event that precipitated Labor Day, the parade and picnic in New York in 1882, there is some debate about the founder.  There are two candidates for the honor – Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union.  We may never know who first proposed the first Labor Day parade, but credit for the holiday itself may best be ascribed to Eugene V. Debs the leader of the strike that convinced the federal government that a holiday in honor of the America workingman was important.  


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