The History of Labor Day

Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It’s a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States.

Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first to suggest a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” But other research seems to support the contention that machinist Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

The Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic. Either way, the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on Sept. 5, 1883.

In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday. As labor organizations grew in size and power, so did the idea of Labor Day. In 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

The first governmental recognition of the holiday came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. While the first state bill proposing the holiday was introduced into the New York legislature, Oregon passed the first law on Feb. 21, 1887.

Four more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment that same year. By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

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