Today Americans — well, most of us who aren’t working at stores that have big Labor Day sales, anyway — get the day off. Why?
Labor holidays were the idea of trade unions in America’s large industrial cities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, the first labor day celebration, on September 5, 1882, occurred in New York City, and by 1885 the idea had spread to many urban areas. Labor Day was recognized as a holiday by some states in the 1880s, and the federal government followed suit in 1894, declaring that the first Monday in September would be celebrated as Labor Day in the District of Columbia and the territories.
Interestingly, unions developed the idea of Labor Day during a period of some of the worst clashes between unions and management in American history. For example, the Pullman railroad workers strike in 1894 — the same year the federal government recognized the Labor Day holiday — caused a number of deaths and was broken only after President Grover Cleveland called out the Army. Although most people focus on such strikes, the union movement also was responsible for pushing many of the work day, safety, and wage laws that Americans take for granted today.
The basic idea behind Labor Day, of course, is to give American workers a holiday from their labors. Of all of the three-day weekends we receive during the year, therefore, Labor Day is the one best suited to commemorate with a simple day off in all its glory, from sleeping in to lounging around to grilling a brat or two as the day winds down. Happy Labor Day!