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Labor Day 2022

September 5, 2022


Labor Day represents summer’s unofficial end. And this summer has been a hot one. Back in 1966, the rock group The Lovin’ Spoonful released their hit “Summer in the City” whose opening verse remains as fresh today as it was then:


Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half-dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head


As hot as it’s been this year, some people may be looking forward to the end of summer and, for that reason, may view Labor Day as way to celebrate coming cooler weather. On the other hand, Labor Day, for many, is little more than an opportunity to party one last time while temperatures remain warm. Celebrants fail to appreciate the struggles and bloodshed that preceded the law establishing the federal holiday. The late poet and social activist Langston Hughes once wrote:


Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain
Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Hardworking people have always been the backbone of the nation; however, they have not always been treated fairly. The editors at History.com note, during the height of the industrial revolution, “People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.”[1] Labor Day was established to recognize both the contributions and struggles of the working class.


Journalist Rachel Siegel (@rachsieg) reports, “The act making Labor Day a federal holiday spared few words when it was signed into law on June 28, 1894. Above the scripted signatures of President Grover Cleveland, the speaker of the House and the vice president, the 83-word law declared that the first Monday of September be ‘the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday.’ The paragraph does little to suggest the decades of confusion that would swirl around the holiday’s origins, Cleveland’s role in its creation or the blood spilled along the way.”[2]


Labor Day’s Brief History


Economist Jay Zagorsky (@Prof_Jay_Z) explains, “The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become. The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.”[3] Most historians agree that the first public celebration of Labor’s Holiday took place in 1882 in the streets of New York City. Siegel reports, “Many sources point to Peter J. McGuire — founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and an early leader of the American Federation of Labor — as the holiday’s progenitor. He reportedly suggested the celebration to the Central Labor Union of New York, but some say that Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union, proposed the holiday.” The U.S. Department of Labor makes the case for Maguire. The Department’s website observes, “Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed the law creating a national Labor Day, the Paterson Morning Call published an opinion piece stating that ‘the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.'”[4]


At the time of the first Labor Day, Zagorsky reports “No government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. The issue was solved temporarily by declaring a one-day strike in the city.” The movement had legs and Siegel reports, “Between 1887 to 1894, 23 states passed Labor Day laws. Oregon was the first, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Then came its recognition as a federal holiday.” Since most the world recognizes 1 May as a day to celebrate global workers, you might be wondering why the first Monday in September was set aside as a holiday in the United States. According to the editorial team at Encyclopaedia Britannica, “There was no particular significance to the date, and McGuire said that it was chosen because it fell roughly halfway between the Fourth of July holiday and Thanksgiving. In 1884, the Knights of Labor adopted a resolution that the first Monday in September be considered Labor Day.”[5]


Concluding Thoughts


The Labor Department notes, “American labor has raised the nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known and the labor movement has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” Journalist Tierney McAfee (@tierneymcafee) adds, “Many of the rights we enjoy and take for granted today, were hard-fought wins by the labor movement of the late 19th century. Labor Day was created to honor the women and men who campaigned tirelessly for workers’ rights, such as a 40-hour work week, safe work conditions, paid time off, and sick leave. (Can you imagine what it was like before?!) They saw that there could be no freedom and liberty in this country without economic freedom for the working class. The holiday honors the source of this nation’s strength — American workers, unions, and labor leaders. No matter how you decide to celebrate Labor Day 2022, take some time to reflect and pay tribute to all the laborers, past and present, who helped build America and make it the country it is today.”


[1] Editors, “Labor Day 2021,” History.com, 30 August 2021.
[2] Rachel Siegel, “Who started Labor Day? The bloody and confusing history of an American holiday.” The Washington Post, 4 September 2017.
[3] Jay Zagorsky, “Striking Union Workers Turned the First Labor Day Into a Networking Event,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 September 2017.
[4] Staff, “History of Labor Day,” U.S. Department of Labor.
[5] Editors, “Labor Day,” Britannica.com, 5 July 2022.
[6] Tierney McAfee, “When Is Labor Day in 2022? Here’s Why We Celebrate the Holiday,” The Pioneer Woman, 6 July 2022.

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