Each year, on the first Monday in September, Americans observe a national holiday called Labor Day. Canadians celebrate the holiday on the same day, although the spelling is slightly different, and known as Labour Day. For some, the Labor Day holiday is a long weekend that marks the end of summer, with backyard barbecues, a final summer getaway, or shopping. Federal, state, and local governments close their offices. Banks and post offices also shut down for the day. However, the foundation for observing Labor Day is to pay tribute to working men and women in the U.S. and Canada.
During the 19th century, many people, including children, worked seven days a week. The workday was 12 hours long. Most Americans endured these harsh, unsafe, working conditions to try and earn a living. Some worked on farms, while others worked in mines or factories. The tasks were often physically demanding, yet offered poor pay. In 1879 New York, a woman working as a dressmaker in a factory averaged between 33 and 58 cents per day. Although only a small number of workers joined varied labor unions, the idea of organized labor was growing. Labor leaders in the late 1800s suggested a Labor Day event to show the solidarity of labor unions and support for America’s laborers.
On Monday, September 5, 1882, the Central Labor Union in New York City, recognizing the harsh realities of America’s laborers, brought together various unions and an array of workers from different industries for a public event to raise awareness about the issues of working men and women across the country. There was no recognized day-off for workers, so most of the gatherers took unpaid time off from work to attend. Workers and union leaders joined together in a parade, carrying signs with pro-labor slogans. The parade extended along Broadway, a street running the length of Manhattan in New York City and ended in Reservoir Park. Following the parade, the marchers gathered in Wendel’s Elm Park for a picnic and speeches. The evening concluded with fireworks and dancing. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 workers and their families participated at some point during the eight-hour event.
There is some debate about who came up with the idea of Labor Day as a holiday. Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter, was the co-founder and Vice President of the American Federation of Labor. In the spring of 1882, he proposed a holiday on the first Monday in September that would kick off with a march, a street parade, and a public picnic. Under his plan, local unions would sell tickets to the event to raise funds for the organizations. Matthew Maguire, a machinist by trade and the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York, also suggested a Labor Day holiday on the first Monday of each September.
On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland officially signed a declaration that Labor Day a was to be a national holiday. However, five states had already designated Labor Day a public holiday in 1887. Oregon was the first, with Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado also recognizing the holiday the same year. Before Cleveland signed the declaration, 25 additional states passed legislation acknowledging Labor Day as an official holiday. One group of historians believes that Cleveland’s motivation to sign the national proclamation was to avoid losing the “working man’s” vote. In 1894, as a response to the lowering of worker wages, thousands of workers from the American Railway Union and the Pullman Palace Car Company decided to strike, severely disrupting rail traffic in the Midwest. Cleveland signed the declaration during the disruption.
Labor Day was not the first day that aimed to recognize working men and women. International Workers’ Day originated in the U.S. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which eventually became the American Federation of Labor, held a convention in Chicago in 1884. Union members and leaders boldly declared that the eight-hour workday be officially and legally recognized by May 1, 1886. When the day arrived, 300,000 workers across the U.S. walked off of their jobs. Violence broke out two days later between the strikers, the police, and Pinkerton agents who arrived to curb the picketers. Over time, unions encouraged their members to recognize Labor Day instead of May Day, which they associated with more radical, anarchist views of labor and its issues. Today, May Day is a holiday in 66 countries.
Although it also occurs on the first Monday in September, Labour Day’s roots in Canada date back to 1872 in Toronto. That year, printers took to the streets to implement a legal 9-hour work day. However, the strikers were jailed because unions were illegal in Canada. As a result of the printers’ arrests, more than 10,000 protestors took to the streets of Toronto. Eventually, Prime Minister Sir John A. McDonald not only repealed the laws prohibiting union activity, but he also released the organizers from jail. In 1894, Prime Minister John Thompson signed an order officially adopting the date as Labour Day.
For decades, people adhered to the notion that wearing white clothing after Labor Day was taboo. Many clothing historians say that it was initially for practical reasons. White was a summer color and a deterrent to the heat. Certain experts say the rule sets apart those of the upper class from those of lesser means. As an example, well-to-do classes wore white linen suits and Panama hats in the 1930s, especially at elite resorts. After Labor Day holiday, the travelers put away the white suits and replaced them with the heavier, darker clothing more suitable for fall. Famous designers such as Coco Chanel bucked the no-white rule, offering white as a suitable option any time of the year. Today, as a rule, more individuals choose to wear white whenever they choose.
Because Labor Day marks the end of the summer, many travelers try to sneak in one more getaway before fall weather hits. Typically, more than 25 percent of Americans choose Labor Day weekend to leave town. Millions drive at least 50 miles from their home to the destination of their choice. According to AAA, in 2017, Labor Day travelers burned 3.5 million gallons of gas, despite the increased cost of fuel due to Hurricane Harvey and the shutdown of refineries that resulted.
Most people are unaware of the historical reasons behind the Labor Day holiday. Although some individuals don’t work over the Labor Day weekend, one out of every four Americans does. Those who aren’t working, around 40%, will take part in a backyard barbecue to celebrate the weekend. Some choose a trip to the beach. For those who view Labor Day as a sign that school is soon back in session, shopping is a popular option, and stores offer sales on a wide array of merchandise.
Americans and Canadians alike often consider the Labor Day holiday as the final holiday of the summer. In truth, the meteorological start of fall is on September 1, based on the annual temperature and the 12-month calendar. For gardeners, Labor Day is a signal that it is time for harvesting fall crops and planning spring gardens. Labor Day occurs during the last long weekend widely shared by workers and students alike until the holiday season begins in November.
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