The month of September is beginning, and all of us are wondering where the year has gone! We see the stores with Halloween and Christmas wares on their shelves, and yet the weather is still hot, and the fall season a few weeks away. Even though schools in this area begin during the first week or two in August, many around the country wait until after Labor Day when the weather cools somewhat, and seasonal workers have settled in their living places. Labor Day has often been referred to as the unofficial end of summer, and that means the first Monday in September will be celebrated as a “last fling” of the summer season.
According to my research, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September in the United States, and honors the American labor movement and the workers who have made our country strong and prosperous. It was created by the labor movement in the late nineteenth century, and became a federal holiday in 1894. Labor Day was one of the results of the Industrial Revolution in our country’s history; during that time, the average American worked twelve hour days and seven days a week in order to make a meager living. Even though there were rules in many states, children as young as five or six years old worked in factories, mines and mills across the country. Also, many of these workers, mostly the very poor, old and the recent immigrants were often made to work in unsafe conditions, with little access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. Labor unions began to grow as manufacturing began to surpass farming as the source of American employment, with strikes and rallies organized to protest the poor working conditions and to negotiate hours and pay. On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, ten thousand workers took time off without pay to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in the history of our country.
This idea of a holiday for the “working man” caught on in many areas across the United States, with many states passing legislation recognizing it. According to one school of thought, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday in 1882 while he served as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Others would argue that it was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire in May of 1882. Peter McGuire was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor.
However, Labor Day would not be recognized by Congress as a holiday until twelve years had passed, and workers’ rights were brought into the public’s view. This process began on May 11, 1894, when employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike protesting wage cuts and firing of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars; this, of course, crippled railroad traffic nationwide. In order to break the strike, the federal government sent troops to Chicago, which resulted in riots and deaths of more than a dozen workers. As a result of this event, Congress rushed to pass an act (June 28, 1894) which made the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday; President Grover Cleveland signed this into law six days after the end of the strike.
Labor Day holiday is celebrated in many ways across the United States. As we look back in history, we find that parades, picnics and speeches were the ways of celebrating. Today, those things are still part of the holiday in some places, along with a holiday from work or school. There are also barbecues, fireworks displays, boating, family gatherings and political rallies. Also, some people consider Labor Day the last day of the year when a person can wear white or seersucker. (Many women have an unwritten rule which states that a person cannot wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day).
No matter how our town or family will celebrate Labor Day this year, many of us have traditions which have been handed down through history for observing this event. We need to remember the significance of this day, and its place in our history, as we learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org