What is Labor Day, Anyway?

Traffic backed up before the Bourne Bridge heading for Cape Cod for the Labor Day weekend.
Traffic backed up before the Bourne Bridge heading for Cape Cod for the Labor Day weekend. –BILL GREENE/ THE BOSTON GLOBE

So we all know Labor Day is a legal holiday and many people are off from work and school. Banks, libraries, post offices, the stock market and municipal, state and federal offices are closed, but why? Is it a day to merely celebrate the labor you put into your 9-5 job every week? Well, kind of.

According to the United States Department of Labor:

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.’’

Basically, thanks for working hard, America.

New York was the first state to introduce a bill for Labor Day, and the first state where it become a law was Oregon in 1887. A few more states followed until Congress officially made it a legal holiday in 1894.


What prompted the creation of a federal holiday?

American working culture was quite different at the end of the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to take shape and labor unions began to form.

According to The History Channel:

“The average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. 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.’’

September 5, 1882, is the date of the first Labor Day parade and celebration in New York City.

According to the former historian for the Department of Labor, Linda Stinson:

“At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.’’

The celebrations and nice day off to signify the end of summer and beginning of fall has since continued into the 21th century.

It seems that the Market Basket labor saga, which ended just this week, could not have come at a more symbolic time, as it showed the power workers can still have.

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