A brief history of Labor Day - The Explorer: Editorials

A brief history of Labor Day

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Posted: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:33 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

For most of us, Labor Day is just another holiday incorporating a three-day weekend and a good excuse to lounge around or go shopping for some end-of-the-season bargains.

But if you were asked, "Why do we celebrate Labor Day?," would you have an immediate and accurate answer? According to a local high school teacher, the answers would vary, with most being wrong or severely lacking in factual content.

What many people overlook or are completely unaware of is the fact that Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday in September, is rather unique. It isn't associated with a former military or national uprising (e.g., Independence Day), it's not dedicated to any particular person, race or organization, and there's no pressure to send a card or flowers for it.

Labor Day is the observance of the value and dignity of actual work performed by American workers and the significance of it in sustaining our daily way of life. This holiday also serves as a pleasant reminder that the long, hot summer is coming to an end, autumn is on the way, and we can finally open the doors and windows of our homes to enjoy some comfortable fresh air throughout the day.

Interestingly, the first Labor Day was not celebrated on a Monday but rather on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City as directed by a plan of the Central Labor Union to hold a picnic for its members. The event was a hit and commemorated again the following year also on Tuesday. It wasn't until 1884 that it was observed on Monday as originally proposed. In 1885 the holiday became so popular that it had spread throughout the country and was known as a "Workman's Holiday."

Yet more than a century later controversy prevails regarding the person who first proposed the holiday for American workers. A number of records indicate that Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of labor, was the first to suggest a day recognizing those who toiled to create and sustain the nation. However, others believe credit belongs to Matthew Maguire, a machinist, who later became the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists located in Patterson, N.J. He allegedly proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Nonetheless, there's no disputing that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and an appointed committee that planned and implemented the first picnic.

Over the years, increasing emphasis was given to Labor Day, with more states joining in the recognition celebration. In 1909, a resolution was passed by the American Federation of Labor at its annual convention specifying the Sunday preceding Labor Day as Labor Sunday, dedicating it to the spiritual and educational aspects of the national labor movement and to the American worker. On June 28, 1894, the U.S. Congress passed an act making the first Monday of September an official holiday honoring American workers and proclaimed it Labor Day. Today Canada and a number of other industrialized nations recognize Labor Day as a national holiday.

While Labor Day was intended to be a day of rest and relaxation for the workers, for many people and families in particular, it's truly a day of labor, involving everything from a final vacation fling to large-scale gatherings and cookouts. A large number of local attractions such as public parks and swimming pools shut down at the end of the day.

A lot of people consider Labor Day as signaling the end of summer even though it isn't officially over for another couple of weeks. Many schools from elementary to college begin classes immediately after Labor Day. For the majority of Americans, this day is a form of seasonal transition.

The fact is it doesn't matter how you spend your day, what does matter is that it continues to be a time of honor for all working Americans who, through their toil, sacrifice, diligence, and creativity, have served to sustain our country as one of the most respected, strong and prosperous nations on earth. To all Americans who continue to stand by the principles and moral values indicative of our economic freedom, know that you are appreciated.

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