Labor Day: Looking back at the unions that changed American history

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7: Barbecues, parades and patriotic colors mark a holiday steeped in American history: Labor Day is the result of the long struggle for recognition by the American labor movement. Beyond recognizing the social and economic achievements of American workers, Labor Day makes us aware of the countless workers who have, together, contributed to the strength and prosperity of their country. In return for their contributions, the unions that made Labor Day renowned pledge to protect American workers and give a collective voice to those who might otherwise have none. The first Labor Day celebration, in 1882 in New York City, attracted more than 10,000 workers who marched through the streets.

Labor & Faith: The value of human labor is echoed throughout the Bible and the Quran. Biblical passages ask God to “prosper the work of our hands” (Psalm 90), while the Quran refers to the morality of conducting oneself in the public square. The late Pope John Paul II frequently talked about the sacred nature of human labor.

In the late 1800s, leaders in the Knights of Labor worked to spread awareness of Labor Day; the influence of religion was undeniable. Wrote Knights of Labor Leader Terence Vincent Powderly, “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.” The Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”–for the spiritual and educational facets of the labor movement. (Read quotes about labor and religion here.)


At the end of the 19th century, many Americans had to work 12-hour days every day of the week to make a living. Child labor was at its height in mills, factories and mines, and young children earned only a portion of an adult’s wage. Dirty air, unsafe working conditions and low wages made labor in many cities a dangerous occupation. (Learn more from Time and the U.S. Department of Labor.) As working conditions worsened, workers came together and began forming labor unions: through unions, workers could have a voice by participating in strikes and rallies. Some events turned violent—such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886—but for the majority of American workers, labor unions transformed lives. (Wikipedia has details.) Through unions, Americans fought against child labor and for the eight-hour workday.

Historians disagree as to who founded Labor Day: Some believe that it was Peter McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, while others attest that it was machinist Matthew Maguire. Nonetheless, the first Labor Day public celebration was launched on September 5, 1882, in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. As awareness spread, Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday, in 1887, and by 1896, Labor Day was a national holiday.


Experts estimate that union membership has now decreased to less than one in eight, though numbers are still strong in specific fields, such as education. Unfortunately, many retail stores today work their employees extra hours on Labor Day, to push Labor Day sales. That means a lot—considering that more Americans work in the retail industry than any other.

In New York City: Today, there is still a major parade in New York City on Labor Day, as well as in other cities across the country.

Unions on Twitter: Posts and photos about unions today can be found at #UnionStrong.

Holiday Weekend Travel: Surveys reveal that 41 percent of Americans plan to travel for Labor Day weekend this year—up 11 percent from last year. Of those surveyed, 68 percent plan to drive and 27 percent intend to fly.

Cookout Recipes: Hosting or attending a cookout or barbecue for Labor Day? Try a recipe from Food Network.

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