Labor Day is not just a holiday that marks the end of summer. In fact, the idea of a Labor Day began in the 1880s. Labor unions organized and established protest marches and picnics for their members as a way to draw attention to the issues facing American workers. The Central Labor Union organized the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882 in New York City. The idea spread to other unions and state governments. By 1890, eight states had passed Labor Day legislation.
In 1893, the United States was suffering an economic depression. Workers across the country were being laid off. Many workers went on strike. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland used 12,000 federal troops to break a strike of the American Railway Union. This action increased tension with labor unions across the country. President Cleveland and Congress quickly passed a law making the first Monday in September a national holiday to recognize the contributions of workers to the American way of life.
After World War II, nearly 50 percent of all workers belonged to a labor union. Labor unions’ efforts improved conditions for all workers. By 2006, however, union membership was down to about 12 percent. Labor Day does not have the same meaning that it once did. Today, Labor Day is a long weekend for many people and an opportunity for many retail stores to hold big annual sales events—an ironic twist for the people who have to work on Labor Day.
- Labor Day
A brief history of Labor Day. Includes videos on famous labor strikes.
- The History of Labor Day
From the U.S. Department of Labor, a history of Labor Day.