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Labor Day Celebrates Workers

'Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.' -- Samuel Gompers

Today America celebrates Labor Day -- a day to appreciate the contributions workers make to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.

Labor Day was first observed on Sept. 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York, an early trade union organization. Peter McGuire, prominent figure in the American labor movement, introduced a resolution calling for workers to lead a parade through New York streets on the first Monday of September—that day chosen because it is halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. More than 30,000 workers marched in the parade.

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 following the deaths of 34 workers during the Pullman Strike, a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads. Approximately 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Co. of Chicago began a wildcat strike in response to reductions in wages, bringing traffic west of Chicago to a halt.

The American Railway Union, America’s first industry-wide union, became embroiled in the strike, involving 250,000 workers in 27 states. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to end the strike. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress and signed into law six days after the end of the strike.

Observance and celebration activities of Labor Day were outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a parade showing people the strength and common spirit for the trade and labor organizations of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of workers and their families. This was to become the pattern for all celebrations of Labor Day.

Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.

Labor Day celebrations have undergone a change in recent years, and now include picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, sports and public events. Labor Day now carries less significance as a celebration of working people and more as the end of summer. 

Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, summed up the holiday in words:

“Labor Day differs ... from the other holidays …. All other holidays are …connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Sources:

U.S. Dept of Labor: The History of Labor Day 

TLC Family; "Why do we Celebrate Labor Day?" 

Labor Day in the United States

Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906)

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