Few Americans realize it, but Labor Day began as a Canadian celebration. That’s right, it was first celebrated in Canada in 1872 with parades in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work week. At the time of the parade, it wasn’t unusual for workers to work a 66 to 72 hour work week. Unfortunately, as I write this, many workers are still engaged in a 66 to 72 hour work week—some work even longer.
The first celebration in this country didn’t occur until September 5th, 1882 when New York’s Central Labor Union marched into Union Square as a sign of solidarity and to focus on all the benefits organized labor provides to society. At least a few people credit the original Labor Day as another Irish holiday in this country. I probably wouldn’t go that far. However, the union leader was Irish. There is some confusion as to whether it was Peter McGuire or Matthew Maguire who led the union at the time. Labor Day began as a
festival for the unionized labor in this country and is supposed to
include parades and speeches centered on the importance of the union in
assuring worker’s rights.
The first federal recognition of Labor Day came in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland pushed it through congress after the devastating Pullman strike in May 1894, where many workers lost their lives after being shot by police, U.S. Marshals, and the military. The purpose of Labor Day is political—reconciliation with the labor unions. The president and congress hoped the holiday would help quell any further disputes. It’s a fact that many of the rights that workers enjoy today are written in the blood of laborers of the past who weren’t afraid to say no, even if it meant losing their lives to do it.
Today, the original purpose of Labor Day is all but forgotten. It has become a time for picnics, kids going back to school, the end of summer, and a time when women stop wearing white. (According to most sources I found, the rule against wearing white started in the early 20th century and has now mostly gone out of date.) I’m sure there will be a few parades and possibly a few mentions of organized labor, but many people will simply view it as a nice time to take a day off to review the summer before engaging in the work of the fall months.
It’s important, especially in these economic times, to consider the role of organized labor in establishing the lifestyle we enjoy today. Many Americans don’t truly appreciate how well we live, but we do live quite well compared to many other places on the planet. Labor, organized or not, has helped make that quality of life a reality. Where would we be without carpenters, plumbers, electricians, factory workers, and the like? So, while I’m taking Monday off to celebrate the holiday by smoking some meat (an all day event), I’ll give some thought to people like my father who worked in grueling conditions so that I might enjoy a high quality of life. Let me know your thoughts about Labor Day at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.