What is Labor Day?

As we head in to the long weekend, let’s reflect on how Labor Day came to be. The holiday’s origins began in 1860. As labor unions became stronger, demand rose for a general celebration to honor the worker. The New York assembly discussed adopting a special day for this purpose. Therefore, the first Monday in September was selected as a day for “workingmen’s relaxation.” This started as a state holiday. The Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor staged the first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1887

After that first year, the September celebration spread to neighboring cities, manufacturing towns and to the country districts. Eventually, Labor Day was celebrated in dozens of states and was practically a national holiday well before it passed into legislation.

In 1890, Kansas Governor Lyman Humphrey, prodded by the Topeka trade assembly issued a proclamation asking the commonwealth to dedicate the first day of September to the toilers. Such a proclamation was novel and Governor Humphrey received criticism for it, but the proclamation caught on and other governors quickly followed his lead.

It was congressman Amos Cummings of New York who took the bill to the United States congress in June 1890. Years passed, but Cummings was finally able to bring it to vote, along with Senator James Kyle of South Dakota. The bill succeeded almost unanimously in both houses, heralded by those in authority, the rich and blue collar workers, alike. After the bill was approved by the house and senate, Cummings took it to President Grover Cleveland himself and witnessed it being signed into law. The bill read:

Be it enacted, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in congress assembled. That the first Monday in September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the 1st day of January, the 22nd day of February, the 30th day of May and the 4th day of July are now made by law public holidays.

Labor Day Bill of 1894
120 years ago, the Labor Day parades consisted of tradespeople, displaying their skills

Although we have lost perspective of the original differences between the holidays, today (that is, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day blend together and all equally recognized with picnics, beach excursions and mattress sales), as envisioned, Labor Day was supposed to be more somber than, say the 4th of July. It was not meant for fireworks. It was supposed to be a day to reflect upon the cause of the workingman and show the importance of his participation in the development of American civilization. In modern society, we lose sight of how many workers were killed because of unsafe and abusive working conditions. Yes, we’ve heard the horrors about the coal mines that caved in. There are even songs about them, like Big Bad John. But what about the Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, an industrial disaster which killed 123 women and 23 men, many of whom jumped to their deaths, because they were trapped in a burning building with no means of escape. Where’s that song?

What about the Radium girls (seen at work above), young employees of the U. S. Radium Corporation, who contracted radiation poisoning while painting watch dials with self-luminous paint? In those days, there were no worker protections, no child labor laws, no Occupational Safety and Health Administration and no worker’s compensation. People died regularly just earning a day’s living, because your job could be hazardous whether you were a coal miner or a seamstress. Back then, the sacrifices of the working class were as physical as they were financial and emotional. A national day meant to pay tribute to those sacrifices was significant.

Although parades were traditionally a feature of Labor Day galas, they did not consist mostly of musical marching processions. There were parades of trade displays, where every avocation was represented by workers showing their skills. Then, speeches followed promoting the causes supporting the working class, some speeches were quite zealous, even rabble-rousing, as agitators seized the opportunity to stir up sentiment, for labor protections. It may have been the type of thing John Lewis would call “good trouble.”

America was the first nation to honor the working class with such a holiday. We may not always live up to its purpose, but we should use the yearly occasion as a reminder to always keep trying.

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