Labor Day was first officially celebrated in 1894 to recognize the contributions of laborers in various trades. It has its origins in 1872, when a nineteen-year-old shop apprentice named Peter McGuire joined 100,000 other New York City workers on strike to demand a decrease in the workday. McGuire, the son of Irish immigrants, was only eleven when he first entered the workforce. At this time it was common for men, women and children to work ten- or twelve-hour days, stopping only long enough to eat. Working conditions were poor, but the employees didn’t dare take time off even for illness – thousands of people were waiting to take their places, and skipping work meant getting fired.
Convinced that an organized labor movement was important to the future of workers’ rights, McGuire began traveling throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States, speaking to laborers about unionizing and lobbying the city government for jobs and relief money. In 1881, he founded a national union of carpenters, and eventually became General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
The idea of organizing workers by trade spread, and factory workers, dockworkers and toolmakers began calling for an eight-hour workday, job security and a future in their respective trades. Working with laborers in various cities, Peter McGuire planned a holiday for workers on the first Monday in September, and the first parade to celebrate the laboring class was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.
In the late 1880s, labor organizations began lobbying various state legislatures for recognition of Labor Day as an official state holiday. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey became the first states to recognize Labor Day as a holiday. Congress voted to make it an official federal holiday in 1894.
Today, Labor Day is observed in the United States, Canada and other industrialized nations. For many Americans, summer unofficially ends with Labor Day: politicians hold rallies, communities host parades, and children say goodbye to summer vacation and get ready to begin a new school year. You may want to take advantage of this last long weekend (until Thanksgiving) with a final barbecue, picnic, or trip to the beach!