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Honoring American Workers: The Origin of Labor Day

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In the United States, Labor Day – the first Monday in September – is traditionally viewed as the unofficial end of summer. Some people choose to celebrate this day with picnics or cookouts, while others prefer road trips, fireworks, shopping trips, and parades.

But do you know the interesting history behind the origin of Labor Day, including the fact that Labor Day is over 120 years old?

There Were Celebrations to Honor US Workers in Earlier Years

Peter J. McGuire was a New York carpenter and labor union leader who proposed the idea of a holiday to honor all U.S. workers. He suggested it to the Central Labor Union in 1882, which accepted the idea.

Similarly, machinist Matthew Maguire called for a similar holiday the same year. Maguire served as the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York and later became the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in New Jersey.

On Tuesday, September 5, New York held a Labor Day parade. Gradually, the idea of Labor Day caught on and spread to 24 states. However, it had yet to be celebrated nationwide.

How a Nationwide Labor Day Officially Originated

During the early 1890s, there was a major economic depression within the U.S., which caused unrest among many unions and economic hardship for both employers and employees. Workers in one particular union, the American Railway Union (ARU), were unhappy that the Pullman Palace Car Company had cut their salaries, kept their workdays at 16 hours and refused to talk with union representatives.

To make company owner George Pullman aware of their discontent, ARU switchmen, led by ARU leader Eugene V. Debs, went on strike on May 11, 1894. They refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains, which disrupted important train services such as the delivery of U.S. mail.

The switchmen were disciplined, but that made the labor situation even worse, causing the entire ARU to strike the nation’s railroads on June 26, 1894. Later, over 125,000 workers on 29 railroads quit work rather than handle Pullman cars, tangling up rail traffic across the country.

President Grover Cleveland then sent in United States Marshals and the Army to break up the strike. Thirteen workers were killed in the struggle, and 57 others were wounded.

President Cleveland Signed Labor Day into Law in 1894

Creating a nationwide Labor Day was the federal government’s attempt effort to improve its relationship with U.S. workers. According to History.com, “In the wake of this massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.”

Celebrating Labor Day Safely in 2021

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of Delta variant infections have impacted some events, there are still ways to celebrate Labor Day safely. USA Today recommends these precautions:

  • Check state and local guidelines before you travel
  • Bring plenty of face masks
  • Carry hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes
  • Spend time outdoors, not indoors, and maintain social distancing when possible
  • Pack your vaccine card in case some venues require it or take a photo of it with your smartphone

Happy Labor Day!

Susan Hoffman is a Managing Editor at APU Edge, whose articles have appeared in multiple publications. Susan is known for her expertise in blogging, social media, SEO, and content analytics, and she is also a book reviewer for Military History magazine. She has a B.A. cum laude in English from James Madison University and an undergraduate certificate in electronic commerce from American Public University.

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