UPDATED: 12:15 a.m. ET, Sept. 7, 2020 —
Labor Day is finally here, marking the unofficial end to summer and the start to the school year. But what else does the holiday signify and why do we celebrate it besides [most of us] having the day off from work?
The holiday is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which, of course, especially makes this coronavirus edition of Labor Day a bit of a conundrum considering the record unemployment and protests for social justice rocking the nation from sea to shining sea.
Celebrated the first Monday of September, Labor Day generally means a day off of work for adults and the final day of summer vacation for school children. If you’re a snooty follower of fashion, it’s also the last day you can wear white. But who started Labor Day and why do we get to take off for Labor Day? To get those answers, we have to go back more than 100 years.
Labor Day’s origins are the source of some debate, but most people credit Matthew Maguire with proposing the idea in 1882. Maguire was the secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, the organization that wound up planning and holding the first Labor Day celebration. This took place on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, and the following year, the CLU marked the occasion on that same date. It wasn’t until 1884 that the CLU settled on the first Monday in September and began urging other labor groups to stage their pro-worker celebrations on that day.
Some scholars believe Peter J. McGuire, who co-founded the American Federation of Labor and worked as the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, was the first to suggest the holiday. Regardless, on Feb. 21, 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize the holiday. That same year, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey followed suit. Before the end of the decade, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut had also jumped on board, and on June 28, 1894, after 23 additional states had enacted Labor Day legislation, the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday. Congress’ decision came mere days after President Grover Cleveland had deployed 12,000 troops to break up a national railroad strike, and the creation of the holiday was seen as a way to appease the labor movement.
As recently as last year, 155.2 million people were expected to celebrate Labor Day. That was the number of Americans aged 16 and older who were part of 2019’s workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number has since shrunken significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its social distancing guidelines that are preventing most Labor Day parades from being held this year.
Hence, this year, with even fewer people belonging to labor unions, the 2020 installment of Labor Day is expected to be more of a day for hitting the beach, attending cookouts and generally relaxing.
So crack a beer and pull up a chair, America. You’ve more than earned it.
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