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.

When is Labor Day?

Labor Day always takes place on the first Monday of September. In 2020, it will occur on Monday, September 7.

What is Labor Day?

Labor Day was designed as a day of well-deserved acknowledgment for the contributions that American workers have made to our country. For most of us, the answer to “what is Labor Day” is a delicious day off from work and summer’s last hurrah. Labor Day is (usually) earmarked by picnics, parades, barbecues, and full-out joyful summer fun. It is a time for family and friends to get together on the beach, ballfield, or playground—although maybe not in 2020 while we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Labor Day celebrations might look a little different this year: smaller and most likely no parades. But something that will definitely still happen this year? Amazing Labor Day shopping sales. You’ll be able to take advantage of those at these stores that stay open on Labor Day.

How did Labor Day originate?

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought a vast array of jobs and commerce to this country. 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. Unions slowly started to form, to fight for American workers’ rights. During this heady time, the idea for Labor Day was formed. Who the originator 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, after he signed its creation into national law in 1894. These 17 things go on super sale for Labor Day.

How is Labor Day different from Memorial Day?

Memorial Day and Labor Day are summer’s bookend weekends. Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, and Labor Day, its unofficial end. The purpose of these holidays is completely different, however.

Memorial Day is a time of remembrance and gratitude for the men and women of the armed forces who have fought and died for our country and our freedom since we became a nation, although some states still refuse to celebrate it. What is Labor Day? It’s a time of acknowledgment of America’s workforce, the people who made this country what it is and sustain its growth. Read on for surprising Labor Day facts you never knew.

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Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.