History of Labor Day: What’s Work Got To Do With It?


Labor Day is when we celebrate the process our mothers went through to deliver us at birth. Sorry, wrong holiday.

Labor Day in the U.S. is the day we celebrate the achievements of the American labor movement.

While it is still disputed whether Peter J. McGuire first proposed the holiday, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist, and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York — observances of the holiday go back over a century in the U.S.


First Celebration of Labor Day

Labor Day posterThe first Labor Day celebration was organized by the Central Labor Union on September 5, 1882, in New York City. The legislature of New York first deliberated a bill to establish a regular holiday, but Oregon was the first to pass it on February 21, 1887. It was first proposed as “a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

It’s often celebrated as International Workers’ Day on May Day in other countries. The U.S. did not observe it on May 1st for at least two reasons. The more recent one is that May 1 became associated with the Russian Revolution and Communism. But the more critical part of the backstory starts with the Chicago Haymarket Affair of 1886.


Labor Day Backstory

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had stated in 1884 that labor reform and the 8-hour workday would begin on May 1, 1866. They had two years to implement it. On May 1, 1886, some 80,000 workers marched arm-in-arm up Michigan Avenue in Chicago, carrying their Union banners. Some estimate the total strike ranged from 300,000 to half a million workers. Two days later, on May 3rd, things turned violent. The Chicago police killed several striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant.

Haymarket Flyer

This, in turn, precipitated a protest meeting planned for Haymarket Square on May 4th. At the end of this meeting that night, about 200 people and 176 police officers were in an altercation. An unknown assailant dropped a dynamite bomb, panic shooting began, and police killed some of their own men. Four workers and seven police officers died from the shooting and bomb; dozens were wounded.

On May 5th, martial law was declared throughout the U.S., and anti-labor governments leveraged the affair to crush local Union movements; labor leaders in Chicago were arrested, Union newspapers were closed down, and eight men were tried. The trial lasted for two months, ultimately resulting in four hangings and another found dead in his cell. The governor pardoned those still alive.

All of this gained international publicity, influencing similar labor movements. Twenty country delegates met in Paris on July 14, 1889, at the Marxist International Socialist Congress, a socialist and labor party organization. Influenced partly by the Haymarket Affair, May 1st was established as International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day. The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International Meeting in Amsterdam called for

“all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”


U.S. Observance of Labor Day

Though Oregon was the first state to make it an official public holiday in the U.S., as I mentioned, it became a Federal holiday in 1894, when 30 states celebrated it. Now, all American states recognize it as a federal holiday.

In the U.S., it is considered the unofficial end of summer, a three-day weekend ahead of the school term in some parts of the country. In the days of yore, all school systems began then, as well as football. Now, school often starts in August, and football seems to run all year long, with occasional interruptions by baseball.


Can You Wear White After Labor Day?

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

This unofficial fashion dress code goes back to the 19th century. This “rule” was to separate the “nouveau rich” from “old money.”

Those with old money would leave the city during the warmer months for their summer homes, where white signified “vacation wear.” White dresses, linen suits, and Panama hats were considered the “look of leisure” for old-monied families.

After Labor Day, as people went back in September to the city for school and work, you’d pack away your summer clothes in anticipation of Autumn and darker clothes: navy blue suits, gray sweaters, tweed jackets, a different wardrobe.

But this dress code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.



WorkWork has dignity; it is not a curse. In the Biblical account, God worked six days in Creation and rested on the 7th day from his labors. Even in the Garden, man was given the work of stewardship, cultivating and caring for the earth. And naming the animals.

And God placed man and woman into his world
To fill and subdue
To work
And steward

There is beauty in work
In doing anything well

These good things come from above
From the Father of lights

Whatever your hand finds to do
Do it with all your might
As for the Lord and not for men

So praise God with the works of your hands

I’ve always wondered about Adam’s naming of the platypus, which means “flat-footed.” I think Adam might have gone with the full Greek ornithorhynchus, which means “bird snout,” or anatinus, which means “duck-like” in Latin. It’s Greek to me.


How will you celebrate Labor Day?


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. ผ้าลูกไม้สวยๆ on August 7, 2016 at 6:48 pm

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  2. TOm Griffin on August 31, 2018 at 11:16 am

    How will I spend Labor Day?… working. And I assume that the EU celebrates in May due to some metric conversion or is the Yankee determination to do everything differently from the rest of the world…isn’t it the eternal question…

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