Labor Day: Honoring American Workers and their Historic Struggles for Fair Conditions


Labor Day, often associated with sales, family barbecues and indicative of the unofficial closure of summer, is much more than a long weekend. To many, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, serving as a final festive fanfare preceding the onset of autumn. However, the holiday has a profound significance embedded in history; originating in the 19th century, it reflects the struggle for better and fair working conditions. Labor Day was initially crafted to pay homage to the workers who were part of the American labor movement.

The pioneers of Labor Day festivities were individual labor activists and states in the latter half of the 19th century, as per the US Department of Labor. New York initially proposed a bill recognizing Labor Day but it was Oregon that managed to officially enshrine it into law in 1887. By the end of the same year, the festive occasion was also observed in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

Labor historian Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus at the City University of New York, states that the holiday came into existence during a period of recuperation for labor unions following the recession of the 1870s. In New York City, the formation of the defunct Central Labor Union led to a collaborative platform for unions across various trades and ethnic groups. Concurrently, the Knights of Labor, a prominent national labor convention, held a convention inclusive of a grand parade. However, the timing, which was a Tuesday in the early phase of September, prevented many workers from attending.

The convention’s popularity spurred unions across the country to plan their own celebrations in the early phase of September, typically favoring the first Monday of the month. Initially, attendance was considered audacious as it exposed participants to potential retaliation, including job loss. Yet as time passed, recognition of the holiday by states became more commonplace and many employers began providing their employees with the day off.

Labor Day was federally recognized on June 28, 1894, when Congress approved an act designating the first day of September as Labor Day. Earlier that year, President Grover Cleveland had enlisted the military to suppress the Pullman railway strike. Cleveland swiftly advanced legislation acknowledging Labor Day following the strike, serving as a conciliatory gesture toward organized labor.

The inception of Labor Day took place during a time when unions were advocating for tangible improvements in working conditions. These efforts led to the inception of the now standard eight-hour work day. Labor Day provided a platform for workers to convene over their prerogatives as well as for society at large to acknowledge their contributions. A more radical political dimension was also present in the Labor Day observation. Existential questions were being posed regarding the capitalist or industrial system perceived as definitive exploitation and a source of social and economic inequalities.

As Labor Day evolved, its radical political undertones became muted. Around the world, workers were celebrated with a holiday known as May Day, which took place on May 1. This holiday was also rooted in the fight for the eight-hour work day. Labor Day began to be perceived as a more moderate alternative to May Day, established by the Marxist International Socialist Congress.

Labor Day celebrations experienced a temporary resurgence after World War II, particularly in cities such as Detroit and New York City. However, by the 60s and 70s, these had once again declined.

Labor Day is also tied to an antiquated fashion rule that prohibits the wearing of white after the holiday. This standard originated in the 19th century as one of many style customs aimed at differentiating the upper and middle classes. The disuse of white clothing post-Labor Day symbolized the end of summer vacations and the return to city life for the affluent class. This rule, just like many others, faded away during the 1970s in light of the Youthquake movement of the 1960s, which transformed and challenged established norms.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.


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