The History of Labor Day and Why We Celebrate It Every Year

Find out how the labor movement influenced the holiday's inception.

Labor Day in the United States takes place annually on the first Monday in September. While some may associate this holiday with summer nearing its end, the day as a whole dates back to the late 1800s, and it was meant to create fair treatment for workers. According to Teresa Ghilarducci, Bernard L. and Irene Schwartz professor of economics and the director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA), the year 1883 is when members of the labor movement specifically disputed overwhelming working hours. And per, the average American worked 12-hour shifts over seven days a week to make a living. While his name is still unknown, a New York City carpenter led the charge of the labor movement, which was comprised of auto, steel, and mine workers, to push for 10-hour workdays and honor laborers by making a holiday in their name during the first week of September.

Other demands were coupled with the 10-hour shift request by workers nationwide. "What is interesting about the first Labor Day is that it wasn't a protest about pay; primarily, it was a protest about conditions," says Ghilarducci. Not only did workers want shorter workdays, but there was also a plea for children to receive public education, as many as young as five years old worked in factories, often earning lower wages than adults. Making education a requirement through the age of 16 would allow kids to avoid hard labor in factories during their youth and prioritize their schooling. Plus, safety was important for workers. Deaths were reported frequently on the job because of industrial accidents, like mines caving in, for example. "The workers wanted to be able to leave a site that was dangerous, and they wanted to actually have more rest," she adds.

american flag hanging in front of home labor day
GHI/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

However, an event three years later further sparked the need for change by government officials. "When labor leaders were hanged for conspiracy in the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1886 during a rally supporting [strikes] and the workers' fight for a 10-hour day at the McCormick Harvester plant (turned to international Harvester, and now Navistar), there was a worldwide cry to have an international workers day to honor the American labor leaders," says Ghilarducci. "That international worker's day was [unofficially] declared May 1 (the Haymarket rally was that first week of May)."

Shortly after this fatal event, though, American politicians decided against making the holiday on this day in May, called May Day around the world. "There were big parades and big celebrations and festivals, May Day around the world was becoming more popular and associated with the Soviet Union and communism and socialism," explains Ghilarducci. "So, the American elite worried about that popularity [and] wanted to create a distraction away from May Day." Instead, they aligned with the original date request from the labor movement leaders in 1883 to have the first Monday in September as Labor Day in America. It initially became a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and its territories, and it was officially marked as a federal holiday in 1894 when President Cleveland signed it into law.

"Labor Day has evolved, but a lot of the same traditions are there as they were 150 years ago," says Ghilarducci. Aside from parades and gatherings with family, she explains that today, we continue to celebrate this day in honor of workers, and political figures work to make forward movement for their rights. "Politicians go out and talk to rallies of workers to [speak] about how they'll help the working family," she adds. "So, Labor Day has evolved into a political day and that's where politicians will articulate their platform for working people."

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