Labor Day, legal holiday honoring workers, celebrated in the United States and Canada on the first Monday in September. The observance includes parades and speeches reviewing labor’s contributions to society. In most of Europe the first of May—May Day—is set aside as a day to honor workers.
II ORIGINS OF LABOR DAY IN THE UNITED STATES
Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and union leader, generally receives credit for suggesting a holiday to honor workers in 1882. McGuire chose the September date to give workers a holiday midway through the long stretch between Independence Day (July 4) and Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). The first Labor Day observance was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. Thousands of workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Afterward, they gathered in a park with their families for a picnic and speeches.
In 1887 Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday. Other states soon followed. Early Labor Day parades were demonstrations in support of an eight-hour workday. During the 1800s most laborers worked long hours at low pay.
III LABOR DAY BECOMES A FEDERAL HOLIDAY
In 1894 the United States Congress passed legislation that made Labor Day a federal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law. That year, railway workers in Pullman, Illinois, had gone on strike to protest wage cuts. Cleveland sent in federal troops to end the strike. Strikers were killed, and their leaders were jailed. Congress and the president hoped to pacify labor with the holiday.
IV LABOR DAY OBSERVANCES
For some time Labor Day remained a time not only to commemorate labor’s contributions but also to draw public attention to the plight of workers and the struggle of labor unions to improve working conditions. Parades in which workers march with their local union and at which labor leaders give speeches are still a major feature of Labor Day in many U.S. towns and cities. One of the largest Labor Day parades in the United States takes place in New York City.
To many Americans, however, Labor Day signals the end of summer vacations and the start of a new school year. Many families observe Labor Day by gathering for the last picnic of summer or the season’s final trip to the beach.
V LABOUR DAY IN CANADA
Labor groups in the Canadian cities of Ottawa and Toronto first organized parades and rallies in 1872, ten years before the first Labor Day celebration in the United States. The parade in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, marched to the home of Canadian prime minister John A. Macdonald. At that time, union activity was illegal in Canada. Macdonald promised that such laws would be removed from the statute books, and the Canadian Parliament repealed the laws against union membership later in 1872.
Peter McGuire, the initiator of New York City’s first Labor Day parade, may have gotten the idea from Toronto. Toronto labor officials invited McGuire to their celebrations in 1882. That year he proposed the idea for a workers’ parade in New York.
The Canadian Parliament passed legislation making Labour Day an official holiday in 1894, the same year as the U.S. Congress. Labour Day celebrations in Canada are held on the first Monday in September and are similar to those in the United States.