Labor Day

As America moved into the Industrial Revolution era, labor movements began to advocate for employee rights to deal with some of the worst practices of the industry.  Labor unions fought for child labor laws, minimum wage protections, and other rights.  At that time, there was also a push to establish a day to honor workers.

Up until 1870, there were no federal holidays.  In that year, Congress formally adopted New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving as the first federal holidays.  George Washington’s birthday (now called Presidents Day) was the next federal holiday in 1879.  That was followed by Declaration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1894.  Labor Day was first proposed in the 1880s.

It’s unclear what the actual origin of Labor Day was, but it seems clear that the start of the push for Labor Day as a federal holiday was parades of working people.  In 1887, Oregon became the first state to recognize Labor Day as an official state holiday.  Within the next seven years, thirty other states followed suit.

In 1894, Congress passed a bill recognizing Labor Day as an official federal holiday.  The first Monday in September was designated as Labor Day.

The federal law was signed by President Grover Cleveland, but the law only applied to federal employees.  Most businesses did not recognize the holiday.

It wasn’t until the labor unions encouraged workers to refuse to work on Labor Day that it became a statutory holiday, applicable to all workers.

Why the first Monday in September?  There was originally a push to make May 1st Labor Day.  However, May 1st had baggage as a date because of socialist and anarchist significance.  President Cleveland strongly opposed May 1st and argued for a September date as a less controversial date.

Labor Day has subsequently become thought of as the end of summer and lost much of its original significance as a day to honor workers.  Subsequent federal holidays have also lost their meaning soon after their designation.

The designation of a federal holiday is not an easy process, but sustaining its significance is even harder.  As we think of the beginning of Labor Day, maybe it’s time to begin to rethink our approach to federal holidays and what they should really be.

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“I learned the value of hard work by working hard” – Margaret Mead (anthropologist)

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