Labor Day: Date, History, Activities and Quotes

July 18, 2022 6 min read

Labor Day has arrived, marking the end of summer. Yes, most of us have the day off, but this holiday brings up conflicting feelings. Summer has 21 calendar days remaining, so it's time to get serious. School has begun, and it appears that summer vacation is coming to an end. So, what's the story behind Labor Day, and how did it become a federal holiday? Let’s take a look.

1. What is the Date of Labor Day? 

Labor Day is a federal holiday in the United States observed on the first Monday of September to honor and recognize the American labor movement, as well as the activities and contributions of laborers to the development and successes of the country. It falls over a three-day weekend known as Labor Day Weekend.

2. Labor Day History 

Do you have weekends off from work? What about lunch breaks? Paid time off? Eight hours of work? What about social security? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may credit labor unions and the United States labor movement. Years of hard fought struggles (and the following laws) resulted in many of the most fundamental perks we have today at work. We take the first Monday in September off to commemorate Labor Day and reflect on the contributions of American workers to our country.

The origins of the festival are disputed. One version takes place in September 1882, with the Knights of Labor, the largest and most powerful American labor organization at the time. On September 5, the Knights of Columbus in New York City sponsored a public procession involving numerous labor organizations, with the assistance of the embryonic Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York. To commemorate this successful public demonstration, CLU Secretary Matthew Maguire advocated a national Labor Day holiday on the first Monday of September each year.

Another version proposed Labor Day in September by Peter J. McGuire, vice president of the American Federation of Labor. McGuire reportedly suggested to the CLU in the spring of 1882 a "universal holiday for the laboring people" that would begin with a street parade of organized labor solidarity and culminate with a picnic fundraising for local unions. McGuire proposed the first Monday in September as a good Labor Day date because the weather is nice at that time of year and it comes between July 4th and Thanksgiving. Oregon was the first state in the United States to declare it a public holiday. By the time the federal government made it a federal holiday in 1894, 29 other states had joined.

Is it Maguire or McGuire? More information on this strange coincidence can be found in our FAQs section below.

What exactly is the Haymarket saga?

Tens of thousands of workers protested in cities across the United States on May 4, 1886, demanding an eight-hour workday at a period when most American employees worked 18 or even 20 hours a day. Two days later, police in Chicago attacked both those peaceful protesters and a workers planning conference, randomly beating and firing at the planning group and killing six people. When enraged Chicagoans showed out the next evening for an initially calm protest in Haymarket Square, police moved in again. Someone who was never identified detonated a device that killed a police officer, prompting policemen to open fire on protestors and incite violence that resulted in the deaths of a dozen workers and police officers.

Pullman workers' strike

Ironically, Chicago was the site of the violent Pullman strike of 1894, which sparked the establishment of an official Labor Day holiday in the United States on the first Monday of September.

The strike occurred in May in Pullman, Chicago, a company town built by luxury railroad car maker the Pullman Company. The town's inequity was more than apparent. George Pullman, the company's owner, lived in a mansion, while the majority of the workforce stayed in barracks-style dormitories. When a worldwide downturn hit in 1893, Pullman did what many businessmen did at the time: he lowered wages by over 30% while keeping the rent on the dorms he rented to his employees at pre-depression levels.

Railroad strike

Workers went on strike on May 11, 1894 as a result of these conditions. The countrywide American Railroad Union (ARU) supported the walkout, declaring that ARU members would no longer work on trains that had Pullman cars. That national boycott brought the railroads west of Chicago to a halt, with 125,000 workers from 29 train companies quitting rather than breaking the boycott.

When the Chicago railroad corporations employed strikebreakers as replacements, the strikers responded by taking a variety of actions to halt the trains. The General Managers Association, which represented local railroad businesses, responded by persuading former railroad attorney and US Attorney General Richard Olney to intervene. Olney was granted an injunction against the strike by federal courts in Indianapolis, allowing President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops to break it up.

Cleveland knew a few days later that he needed to act swiftly to pacify the country's increasingly upset labor movement. He didn't, however, want to celebrate the Haymarket affair with a May holiday that might incite radical worker feeling. So Cleveland went back to the first established Labor Day in September 1882 and put into law that Labor Day in the United States would be observed on the first Monday in September.

3. Labor Day Activities

Learn about the origins of Labor Day

Labor Day has a rich history that has a direct impact on the working circumstances we face today. So, during your Labor Day barbecue, take some time to talk about the American labor movement and its impact on our country's contemporary work culture.

Purchase an American-made product

Take the time to study the labels when conducting your Labor Day shopping. Consider purchasing "Made in the USA" products to show your support for American labor.

View a film about labor unions

Many of us have the day off on Labor Day. What better way to unwind than to curl up on the couch and watch a documentary about the American labor movement? There are numerous union-themed films to pick from. Do the words "Norma Rae" ring a bell? Aside: Unions are quite important in the entertainment sector.

Install a sprinkler system

On a hot summer day, kids like running through sprinklers. It's also a terrific opportunity to get in touch with your inner child and have some fun!

Take a swim in a natural pool

Swimming in a natural swimming hole may be a fantastic way to take our thoughts off the monotony of the office routine. There are also numerous locations throughout the United States!

Ride a bicycle

Biking is an excellent way of social distance travel! Rent or bring your own bike and enjoy the summer by going for a leisurely ride on your favorite track, or even 

better, pick a new one to explore.

Go to an outdoor brewery

Instead of staying at home, quench your thirst at the source. Fortunately, many breweries are renovating outdoor spaces and introducing sanitizing stations to accommodate socially distant drinking. Take in some fresh air to enjoy the summer atmosphere.

Go to a drive-in movie

When you find a drive-in movie theater near you, where the family can enjoy refreshments from the safety and comfort of the car, you'll forget about your Netflix subscription.

Plan a hot dog cookout

There's certainly nothing more American than hotdogs, so why not offer them with a side of beans to family and friends?

Backyard camping trip

Take advantage of the fact that there will be no work or school on Sunday night by hosting a sleepover beneath the stars. While you're enjoying those last summer evenings, look up some simple campfire dishes.

4. Labor Day Quotes

"To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth."— Pearl S. Buck

"The miracle is not that we do the work, but that we are happy to do it."— Mother Teresa

"Before the reward, there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy."— Ralph Ransom

"Though you can love what you do not master, you cannot master what you do not love."— Mokokoma Mokhonoana

"It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things."— Theodore Roosevelt

"The supreme accomplishment is to blur the lines between work and play."— Arnold J. Toynbee

"A man is not paid for having a head and hands, but for using them."— Elbert Hubbard

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."— Thomas Edison

"Take a rest. A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop."— Ovid

"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."— Aristotle

"Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and, above all, don't let anyone limit your dreams."— Donovan Bailey

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