What is Labor Day, exactly?

Labor Day parade in Buffalo, New York, ca. 1900 (Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress)

As many of us get ready to kick back on Monday and start our work week with a day off, The Tribune takes a look at the Labor Day holiday.

Labor Day is the product of the rise of labor unions in the 1800s. By the early 1880s, various unions across the country had already been declaring certain celebration days, when labor leaders (the particular one is a topic of ongoing debate) in New York began planning a major celebration and pro-labor demonstration and parade in 1882. The Central Labor Union, an association of several small unions, adopted an official plan and their first celebration took place on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882. As many as 10,000 workers were estimated to have taken part in the day’s parade, picnic and concert. 

The event caught the attention of many other labor groups, as did the next year’s celebration, on Sept. 5, 1883, a Wednesday. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, predecessor to the American Federation of Labor, adopted a resolution “that the first Monday in September of each year be set apart as a laborers’ national holiday, and that we recommend its observance by all wage workers, irrespective of sex, calling, or nationality.”

Oregon made Labor Day an official state holiday in 1887, and by 1894, 22 other states had followed suit.

In 1894, a railroad strike led to violent clashes between union members and federal troops. Extending an olive branch, United States President Grover Cleveland signed a congressional act on June 28, 1894, declaring Labor Day an official national holiday on the first Monday of each September.

Today’s Labor Day celebrations include barbecue, picnics, concerts and sometimes fireworks and even the occasional parade. Official, unofficial and somewhere-in-between traditions about Labor Day include:

  • Labor Day marking the symbolic end of summer.
  • The end of white clothing season. Drawing on an earlier Victorian tradition, Labor Day’s place as the end of summer marked the concluding point for wearing white. The tradition is not generally observed today.
  • The end of peak “hot dog season,” according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (Yes, it’s a thing!). The organization estimates that Americans eat seven billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 150 million on the Fourth of July alone.
  • Cooking out. Labor Day is the third most popular cookout day in the U.S., behind Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
  • Travel. More than 35 million Americans hit the road on the three-day Labor Day weekend.
  • Celebration in other countries. In most countries that have a Labor Day, though, the holiday is celebrated May 1.

Let us know: how will you celebrate Labor Day this year?

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W.C. Mann