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Labor Day: More Than a Day at the Beach

Labor Day, often marked by taking the last trip to the beach, was actually created by the labor movement in the 19th century, dedicated to celebrating the social and economic achievements of American workers.  Who was behind the movement to establish Labor Day is still contested more than 125 years after the first parade the United States, held in New York City in 1882.

Some say that the founder of Labor Day was Peter McGuire, while others say that a New Jersey machinist named Matthew Mcguire was the driving force.  The weight of the evidence seems to point to Matthew Mcguire, who was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York City when Labor Day was established.  There is more information about the controversy on the Department of Labor’s web page.

Although Labor Day was celebrated in many industrialized cities in the years following that first parade, it did not become an official federal holiday until 1894.  Labor Day celebrations in those years were not all that different than they are today, although today’s event probably has more recreational activity and fewer speeches celebrating the labor movement.

The organizers of the first Labor Day were afraid that the event would be a failure. Workers had to lose a day’s pay in order to attend and only a few people showed up at the start of the parade.  However, as the day wore on, 200 workers and a brass band from the jewelers’ union and another band from the bricklayers’ union showed up.  By the time the parade reached its end, more than 10,000 workers had joined in.  The parade and speeches were followed by a picnic and recreational activities for in the park for workers and their families.

As the United States has transitioned to more of a service and technical economy and union membership declined, the significance of Labor Day as a celebration of America’s industrial might may have declined somewhat.  However, labor unions and other associations of workers continue to hold festivities to commemorate the role of American workers in developing the strongest economy in the 20th century.