Labor Day

views updated May 29 2018


Labor Day originated in the organizing efforts of labor unions after the Civil War, and became a battleground in the struggle between pragmatic unionists, who accepted capitalism, and radical unionists, who opposed it. On 5 September 1882, New York's Central Labor Union (CLU), a socialist-leaning federation, sponsored a labor festival to coincide with the Knights of Labor's annual conference in New York City. Among the main organizers were machinist Mathew Maguire, tailor Robert Blissert, and carpenter Peter J. McGuire. Their goals included recruiting unaffiliated workers, legitimizing unions, and demonstrating to employers, politicians, and the public the importance and power of industrial labor.

The first Labor Day featured a procession of ten to twenty thousand union members, many wearing the uniforms of their trades, such as the leather aprons and work clothes of the machinists. Socialists sported red badges or ribbons to denote their politics. Some unions demonstrated their crafts; for example, cigar makers rolled cigars. Marchers carried banners expressing support for the eight-hour movement and labor candidates, opposing child labor, and proclaiming the power of unions. Knights of Labor officers, including national leader Terence Powderly, reviewed the parade. Afterward, workers heard oratory by union leaders and sympathetic journalists, picnicked with their families, drank German beer, watched fireworks, and danced to union bands.


The CLU repeated the festival in 1883, and, in 1884, it decided to make the event an annual holiday, setting the date as the first Monday in September, which gave workers a rare two-day weekend (few had Saturdays off at that time). The Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Assemblies (predecessor of the American Federation of Labor) both endorsed the CLU's holiday in 1884, and more than 400 cities celebrated Labor Day by 1889. Despite the hostile climate toward organized labor, the holiday won rapid government approval. Oregon recognized Labor Day in 1887, and thirty other states had done so by the time Congress made it a federal holiday in 1894. By legalizing Labor Day, the government acknowledged the essential role of industrial labor (and the power of the labor vote), but the legislation did not force private employers to grant their workers a paid holiday. As the Chicago Daily Socialist noted in 1909, "All admit that when a man knocks off work on La bor Day his time is also knocked off the time sheet."

By the end of the century local and state politicians were actively courting the labor vote on Labor Day. Even national politicians put in appearances. In 1900, both Republican vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt and Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan reviewed Chicago's Labor Day parade and spoke at the picnic that followed.

The Meaning of Labor Day

From the start, Labor Day reflected the desires of both union leaders and the rank and file by combining ideology and recreation. The centerpiece was the parade of union workers. The massed workers visually demonstrated labor's strength and solidarity. So important did they consider the procession that many unions fined members for not marching. After the parade, labor leaders declaimed on union concerns. Finally, food, dancing, and recreational activities catered to workers' craving for entertainment.

The tensions between pragmatic and radical unions also shaped early Labor Day celebrations. Socialists asserted that legalization of the holiday had undermined its effectiveness as a demonstration of class solidarity, while pragmatic unionists downplayed class rhetoric in favor of patriotism. Unions affiliated with the pragmatic American Federation of Labor (AFL) dominated Labor Day exercises by the 1890s. Their celebrations proclaimed labor's partnership with capital and the Americanism of union members. They featured profuse displays of the American flag and banned both foreign and red flags. Some radical unions withdrew from AFL exercises to protest this message. Socialists in Chicago, for instance, held alternative exercises on the Sunday before Labor Day.

Changing Practices and Meaning

Whether pragmatists or socialists, union leaders fought to keep Labor Day focused on the concerns of organized labor, but they increasingly ran up against their members' preferences for recreation. Businesses fed these desires, offering holiday excursions, sporting events, and movies. Many unions responded by shifting the Labor Day balance more toward amusement, dispensing with oratory and even dropping the procession, replacing them with baseball games, bicycle races, boxing matches, and other games.

Because of its connection to organized labor, Labor Day waxed and waned with union fortunes in the twentieth century. During strikes and major organizing drives, unions rallied the troops for parades and celebrations. Unions and Labor Day declined in the reactionary 1920s but revived during the Great Depression. Under the organizing efforts of the left-leaning Committee on Industrial Organization (later Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO]) and abetted by the Wagner Act, which finally lent government support to unions, union membership soared, and Labor Day gained increased prominence. Celebrations in the war years showcased labor's Americanism and support for the war, but in the repressive Cold War climate, labor militancy and Labor Day declined again. The normalization of the five-day workweek had made the holiday a three-day weekend, and the very successes of organized labor allowed prosperous working-class families to take holiday trips rather than attend union festivities. The long decline of organized labor, set in motion by the industrial crises of the 1970s, sealed Labor Day's ultimate transformation into the unofficial end of summer vacation, marked by holiday trips and back-to-school sales.

In 2004, Labor Day was celebrated in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. It lacked the stature of other national holidays, however, largely because it was deeply entwined with organized labor, and Americans were historically ambivalent, when not downright hostile, toward unions. Nevertheless, Labor Day retained the power to rally union members. In 1982, unions in New York commemorated the holiday's centennial in the spirit of the original festival by protesting President Ronald Reagan's labor policies. And in the early twenty-first century, union strongholds in areas such as Buffalo, New York, revived Labor Day parades, but they faced an uphill battle in the antiunion climate of the time.

See also: Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Patriotism and Leisure, Thanksgiving


Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Grossman, Jonathan. "Who Is the Father of Labor Day?" Labor History 14 (Fall 1973): 612–623.

Kazin, Michael, and Steven J. Ross. "America's Labor Day: The Dilemma of a Workers' Celebration." Journal of American History 78 (March 1992): 1294–1323.

Litwicki, Ellen M. America's Public Holidays, 1865–1920. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Watts, Theodore F. The First Labor Day Parade, Tuesday, September 5, 1882: Media Mirrors to Labor's Icons. Silver Spring, Md.: Phoenix Rising, 1983.

Ellen M. Litwicki

Labor Day

views updated May 18 2018


LABOR DAY is observed annually in honor of working people on the first Monday in September in all the states and territories, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The day was originally conceived in 1882 by Peter J. McGuire, the radical founder and indefatigable warrior of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of New York. On 8 May, McGuire proposed to the New York City Central Labor Union that the first Monday in September, because it fell midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day, be set aside annually as a "labor day." His effort bore fruit on Tuesday, 5 September 1882, when workers in New York City held a large parade and a festival sponsored by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor. In 1884, the New Yorkers held a parade on the first Monday of September and designated that day as the annual Labor Day. The agitation in New York City was soon followed by labor unions in other states, which staged vigorous campaigns in their state legislatures for the establishment of Labor Day as a legal holiday. Their earliest victories were in Oregon and Colorado, where Labor Day was declared to be a state holiday in February and March 1887, respectively. The next year the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution for the adoption of a Labor Day at its St. Louis, Missouri, convention. Thirty states had followed the lead of Oregon and Colorado by the time the first Monday in September was made a national holiday by an act of Congress, with the bill signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on 28 June 1894. In the early twenty-first century, Labor Day parades, rallies, festivals, and speeches were still organized by labor unions across the country and often supported by political leaders. Because of the shrinking popular base of traditional labor unions, however, most Americans tended to regard the day merely as the finale of a long summer of fun in which hot dogs, barbecues, and picnics reigned.


Commons, John R., et al. History of Labour in the United States. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1918–1935.


See alsoHolidays and Festivals .

Labor Day

views updated May 11 2018


The labor day (trudoden ) was a mechanism for calculating the labor payment of peasants belonging to collective farms. In theory the collective farm was a cooperative form of organization, and thus peasants divided among themselves a residual payment for work rather than a contractual wage. The latter was reserved for the payment of state workers (rabochii ) in industrial enterprises and on state farms.

Each daily task on a collective farm was assigned a number of labor days, according to the nature of the task, its duration, difficulty, and so forth. Peasants accumulated labor days, which were recorded in a labor book. Although a peasant might have some sense of the value of a labor day from past experience, the value of a labor day in terms of money or product would not be known until the end of the agricultural season. Valuation would be determined by the following general formula: To calculate the value of a labor day, the compulsory deliveries to the state would be subtracted from the farm output, and the result divided by the total number of labor days.

After the completion of the harvest, the value of each labor day could be known, and each peasant rewarded in kind (for example, grain) or in money (rubles). With the magnitude of compulsory deliveries at low fixed prices set by the state, the state wielded significant power by extracting products from the farm. Moreover, even though changes in the frequency and form of payment were made over time, the labor day system was a very crude mechanism of payment, with severe limitations as an incentive system.

See also: collective farm; peasantry


Davies, R. W. (1980). The Soviet Collective Farm, 19291930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stuart, Robert C. (1972). The Collective Farm in Soviet Agriculture. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Robert C. Stuart

Labor Day

views updated May 29 2018

La·bor Day • n. a public holiday or day of festivities held in honor of working people, in the U.S. and Canada on the first Monday in September, in many other countries on May 1.

About this article

Labor Day

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic