What Is Labor Day and Why Do We Celebrate It?
America's current workforce stands solidly on the shoulders of those who came before us. Labor Day is a hard-won example of how far we've come since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Here's how it happened, and what it means to us today.
What exactly is Labor Day?
For many, Labor Day is a three-day weekend that helps us celebrate the conclusion of a great summer. However, there’s so much more to Labor Day than a three-day weekend, Labor Day sales ( like mattress sales, furniture sales, and appliance sales), and the Labor Day memes we see on the Internet. On Labor Day, we remember the work of those in the labor movement who fought hard for workers’ rights. We also celebrate the essential role workers play in America’s growth and development—a recognition some fought tirelessly for. Pretty interesting, right? Here’s more about what Labor Day is and why we celebrate it each year.
When is Labor Day?
Labor Day always takes place on the first Monday of September. In 2020, it was on Monday, September 7. Labor Day will take place on the following dates in the next few years:
- 2021: Monday, September 6
- 2022: Monday, September 5
- 2023: Monday, September 4
Who created Labor Day?
Who the originator of Labor Day was is still hotly debated, but what is known for sure is that the first glimmer of a commemorative Labor Day came from a man named McGuire/Maguire. But which?
An American labor leader, Peter J. McGuire, was a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and general secretary for the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. A powerful and effective agitator who founded May Day and fought tirelessly for workers’ rights, Peter McGuire may have been the first to suggest and fight for a national day of acknowledgment for America’s workers in 1882.
It is also possible that Matthew Maguire may have been Labor Day’s true founder. Also in 1882, Matthew Maguire was secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in New Jersey, and secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. A leading figure in the labor movement, Matthew Maguire had a rebellious streak, which worried some of his more conservative colleagues. He led many strikes, as well as an unwavering battle cry for shorter hours and better wages for American workers. According to papers unearthed at the New Jersey Historical Society, President Grover Cleveland credited Matthew Maguire as the undisputed author of Labor Day.
Why do we celebrate Labor Day?
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought a vast array of jobs and commerce to the United States. What it didn’t bring was appropriate pay, safety regulations, or common-sense guidelines for the number of hours people should work each day and week. To put things in perspective, the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week at the height of the Industrial Revolution. It also wasn’t uncommon to see young children doing hard labor in harsh working conditions for minuscule pay.
People noticed these poor conditions, though. Labor unions slowly started to form and fight for American workers’ rights to fair pay, fair hours, and safe working conditions. Strikes and rallies were organized and sometimes turned violent. During this heady time, the idea for Labor Day was formed. The holiday was designed as a day of well-deserved acknowledgment for the contributions that American workers have made to our country. The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. New York’s Central Labor Union held a parade to celebrate union work and show support for all unions. More than 10,000 union workers took unpaid time off work to march from City Hall to Union Square. Numerous states recognized the holiday in the 1880s, but it wasn’t made a national holiday until President Grover Cleveland signed it into law in June 1894. President Cleveland signed the law in the midst of the Pullman Strike, a railroad strike where workers protested reduced wages and the non-reduction of rent in their living area. The strike started in Chicago and quickly sparked a nationwide railroad strike. The strike eventually turned deadly in July 1894 when the National Guard clashed with protesters in Chicago.
What is the difference between Labor Day and May Day?
Labor Day isn’t the only day that honors the labor force. May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is celebrated on May 1 each year. May Day has a long history with roots in ancient pagan festivals, but it took on a new meaning in the 1880s. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the United States participated in a strike demanding an eight-hour workday. The strike grew within the next few days and the protests turned deadly during the Haymarket Riot in Chicago on May 4. The riot itself, along with the controversial trials of the men accused of starting the riot, stirred up international attention. In 1890, more than 300,000 people protested at a May Day rally in London. Since then, it’s been recognized as an official holiday in 66 countries, but the United States is not one of those countries.
Labor Day traditions
Every holiday has its fun traditions, and Labor Day is no exception. Here are some common Labor Day traditions people take part in:
- Parades—Many cities and towns have parades to celebrate Labor Day. The parade may even be part of a bigger Labor Day festival the area holds, and you may even see homes decked out with Labor Day decorations.
- Picnics—If the weather is nice enough, many people like to pack a picnic and eat outside with loved ones. Need something to bring to the picnic? Check out these delicious Labor Day weekend food ideas.
- Barbecues—There’s still time to fire up the grill on Labor Day! Many spend the day grilling up hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs, and chicken.
- Fireworks—What’s a celebration without fireworks? Expect to see color fill up the sky courtesy of Labor Day firework displays.
- Travel—Labor Day weekend is historically a popular time to travel, with people heading to places like the lake or beach for one last summer hurrah.
- Storing white clothing—Yep, it’s an old piece of advice that you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day, so some people store away their white clothing for next year. Learn more about why some people don’t wear white after Labor Day.
Many people consider Labor Day the unofficial end of summer, so it’s also common to see people cover up their pool or store their boat when Labor Day weekend concludes.
Fun facts about Labor Day
Need more Labor Day trivia? Break out these facts to share at the barbecue:
- Canada celebrated Labor Day before the United States. The first Canadian Labor Day—rather, Labour Day—was in 1872, ten years before the United States caught on.
- Oregon was the first state to recognize the holiday. It made Labor Day a legal holiday on February 21, 1887. That same year, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York also legally adopted the holiday.
- Labor Day isn’t the only federal holiday to fall on a Monday. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day also fall on Mondays. That’s not a coincidence, though—some of those holidays were moved when The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 was passed. This legislation was passed so federal employees could have additional three-day weekends.
- Labor Day unofficially marks the end of peak hot dog season. Americans typically eat seven billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
- Labor Day is tied with Memorial Day as the second most popular holiday for grilling.
- It’s estimated that more than 150 million people make up the 2021 American workforce.
- 14.3 million American wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2020.
- At the time of this writing, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Back in 1938, it was 25 cents per hour.
- As of January 2021, the District of Columbia has the highest state minimum wage at $15 per hour. California is second at $14 per hour.
- While many people consider Labor Day to be the unofficial end of summer, there’s still plenty to celebrate in the month of September. National Hispanic Heritage Month starts September 15, and the first day of fall is on Wednesday, September 22.
- Professional football in the United States historically kicks off after Labor Day weekend. The first NFL game of the 2021 season is slated for Thursday, September 9, as Super Bowl champs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys.
Now, you can celebrate Labor Day knowing there were people fighting for your right to earn a livable wage and work in a safe environment. Interested in doing some shopping during the long weekend? Check out which stores are open on Labor Day.
- U.S. Department of Labor: “The Real Maguire—Who Actually Invented Labor Day?”
- AFL-CIO: “Peter J. McGuire”
- The New Jersey Historical Society: “Matthew Maguire, Father of Labor Day?”
- U.S. Department of Labor: “The History of Labor Day”
- History.com: “Labor Day 2021”
- History.com: “May Day”
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Union Members—2020”
- Canada’s History: “The First Labour Day”
- Statista: “Employment in the United States from 2011 to 2021”
- U.S. Department of Labor: “History of Federal Minimum Wage Rates Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938 – 2009”