Labor Day is the symbolic end of summer. It’s the last three-day weekend for a while; the beginning of the NFL and college football seasons; the last gasp of school vacation for many; and the last day of the year for seersucker and white shoes, for those that still hold to that moldy fashion rule. A million barbeque grills will be lit today, while in some places the leaves are already turning.
As a holiday, it took Labor Day a while to gain acceptance. Proposed in 1882, it was adopted by various states (Oregon was the first, in 1887) but didn’t become a federal holiday until 1894. In June of that year, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday following the Pullman Strike, a national railroad strike that involved 250,000 workers in 27 states and left a reported 30 dead.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s website includes historian Linda Stinson’s account of the very first Labor Day celebration:
“…most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.
“At that time, the labor movement was growing stronger. Many of the unions in New York prospered by joining together into one Central Labor Union made up of members from many local unions. On May 14, 1882, a proposal was made at the Central Labor Union meeting that all workers should join together for a “monster labor festival” in early September. A committee of five people was appointed to find a park for the celebration. They chose Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue, the largest park in New York City at that time; the date was set for Tuesday, September 5. By June, they had sold 20,000 tickets with the proceeds going to each local union selling them. In August, the Central Labor Union passed a resolution ‘that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city.’
“At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.
“The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and ‘a day of the people.’
“After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.”
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing – labor or relaxation – we wish you a very pleasant Labor Day.