On August 30, 2023

Labor Day: Remembering the dignity of work


By Karen D. Lorentz

Most everyone grows up knowing what Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving stand for. But Labor Day? A day that celebrates work by having the day off? 

This holiday marks the end of vacations for school children and families and the beginning of a new school year. It has become a three-day weekend when many people take trips, have picnics, attend get-togethers, or do other special things that mark the end of summer. It is a time when a spirit of playful togetherness prevails. 

Behind that celebratory spirit lies the American belief in the dignity of work and a desire to recognize the great efforts and work that went into making this country a successful nation.

Labor Day was first celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. At the suggestion of Peter J. McGuire, the Central Labor Union held a Labor parade. The celebration included 10,000 workers marching around Union Square, picnics, dancing, fireworks, and speeches.

McGuire had suggested that there be a holiday “representative of the industrial Spirit — the great vital force of every nation.”

A second Labor Day celebration was held in 1883. In 1884, the Knights of Labor passed a resolution designating the first Monday of September as the time for an annual Labor Day. 

McGuire had suggested this date because it came at “the most pleasant season of the year” and fell “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving filling a gap” in the sequence of holidays.

In February 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize the holiday. New Jersey followed in April and in May New York legalized the holiday. Thirty states celebrated Labor Day as a legal holiday by 1893. Today all the states recognize Labor Day.

Originally this holiday was tied to the militancy of the Labor Movement. The 19th century Industrial Revolution brought about a large and very real “working class” of men and women running machines in plants and factories. As they grew in numbers, they began to organize and seek better working conditions and higher wages. They also sought to improve the status of working people and to remove the connotation of feudal service or slavery of one man subservient to another.

Labor Day confirmed a strong belief in the dignity of the working man and woman and recognized the contribution of their labor to the newly industrialized United States.

Today, the holiday is generally recognized as a family time or the unofficial end of summer, and although the celebration may have lost some it its original meaning, the day still stands as a reminder of the American belief in the importance and dignity of all work.

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