2019 marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a national holiday. Although Oregon was the first state to recognize it as an official public holiday in 1887, it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1894.
Dedicated to the social and economic achievements of the American worker, two men have been credited with proposing the observance – Matthew Maguire, the Secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, and Peter J. McGuire, Vice President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in Columbus, Ohio. Both organizations would later merge to become the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.
The manner of observance has changed over the years. The initial proposal did specify that the first Monday in September be set aside for the celebration, and recommended that it begin with a street parade to show the public “the strength and espirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” The parade was to be followed by a festival “for the recreation and amusement of workers and their families.”
Today, mass displays and parades have given way to emphasis on individual leisure time. The holiday marks the “unofficial end of summer.” School and sports activities begin at this time. Labor Day Weekend is the first three-day holiday of the school calendar year, and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) typically plays their first games throughout the three-day weekend. In the world of fashion, Labor Day has long been considered the last acceptable day to wear white, beaches and barbecues are synonymous with the holiday, and shoppers flock to department stores or shop online for items (especially back-to-school supplies, clothing, and shoes for school age children) at discounted prices.
What we tend to forget or take for granted, however, are the advances in workers’ rights… eight hour workdays, two-day weekends, paid holidays, minimum wages, the elimination of child labor, and the duty of the state to regulate labor conditions.
None of these advances would have been possible without the efforts of those who organized and championed better working conditions beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and continuing into the present time.