The History and Meaning Behind our Labor Day Holiday
For many Americans, the first Monday in September marks the unofficial end of summer. People associate Labor Day with picnics, a break from school or work and even automotive and mattress sales. In reality, however, Labor Day is a meaningful holiday, and an opportunity to pay tribute to the workers who quietly support our country's strength and prosperity.
Early Recognition of Labor Day
The earliest formal acknowledgements of a holiday celebrating the labor movement dates back to 1885 and 1886. At that time, several municipal ordinances were passed to recognize the "workingmen's holiday," although Congress did not create an official holiday until 1894. It is important to remember that this point in American history marked the height of the Industrial Revolution, when workers were putting in 12-hour days virtually every day of the week, and when children of only five or six years old were put to work in factories, mills and mines. This is also the period of time when labor unions began to gain more power, and workers were beginning to organize to protest deplorable workplace conditions and practices.
A Holiday Without a Founder
Congress passed legislation officially designating Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894. That move came in the wake of a strike of Pullman Palace Car Company workers in Chicago, Illinois. With railroad traffic brought to a virtual standstill, the federal government sent troops to Chicago to end the strike, and a violent conflict with workers led to the death of more than twelve individuals. The birth of Labor Day was a direct response to these events, and an effort to restore positive relations between the government and an increasingly restless base of American workers. Even today, there is no clear indication of who founded the holiday.
The Evolution of Labor Day Celebrations
From the very beginning, Labor Day has been marked by formal parades intended to display the strength and unity of various groups of workers and labor unions. Those parades were often followed by festivals designed to entertain workers and their families. Years later, speeches by community leaders and public officials became part of the holiday.
In recent decades, Labor Day has shifted from away from large-scale public parades and demonstrations to smaller, more localized events. Many families hold annual gatherings to celebrate the holiday, and children anticipate the picnics and parties even as they dread the return of the school year. Union heads, religious leaders and government officials still make Labor Day addresses, but they usually do so through radio, television or print media.
Remembering the Role of the American Worker
The importance of recognizing and respecting the work done by American laborers is as pronounced today as it was more than 100 years ago. Our workforce is the lifeblood of American industry, commerce and innovation. We owe a great deal of our prosperity and even our political democracy to the American worker, and Labor Day offers an opportunity to formally celebrate the role that these men and women play in our nation's strength.
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