What is Labor Day and Why Do Americans Celebrate It?

Blog | August 30th, 2022

Often the last hurrah for summertime fun, Labor Day is observed on the first Monday of September. A three-day Labor Day weekend often includes time with friends and family, grilling, trips to the beach, and short vacations. Stores and websites often have sales on Labor Day, and schools are out across the country.  

Most Americans enjoy Labor Day thanks to the hard work of labor activists and unions. The day is a celebration of the American workforce and workers’ achievements.   

Labor Day’s History  

Labor Day got its start on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City and was planned by the Central Labor Union. Thousands of workers marched through the streets to protest low pay and long hours. Workers then had few rights and worked 12 hours a day or longer.   

Back then, weekends didn’t exist – employees worked seven days a week. Children as young as 5 or 6 years old worked in factories and mines. The average pay was less than $2 a day, and there were no safety regulations protecting workers. A minimum wage law was more than 50 years away.  

After a few annual Labor Day marches and demonstrations, Labor Day began to be recognized as a holiday by individual cities and states. After municipal ordinances were passed in 1885 and 1886, the push to have Labor Day recognized at the state level was launched.   

Oregon became the first state to officially recognize Labor Day by signing it into law on Feb. 21, 1887. Four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York – followed suit.   

By 1894, Labor Day had been adopted by 31 states, prompting Congress to pass a law that year to make the first Monday of September a holiday honoring American workers.   

Do Other Countries Have Similar Holidays?  

Workers around the world have holidays that celebrate their achievements. In Canada, Labor Day is also celebrated on the first Monday of September. Other countries recognize workers on May 1, International Workers Day.   

Also known as May Day, International Workers Day on May 1 stems from the Haymarket Affair, an 1886 demonstration that started as a peaceful protest for an eight-hour workday. After a bomb was thrown, seven police officers and four civilians were killed. The event is considered the climax of the Great Upheaval, which saw workers fighting for their rights after the start of the Industrial Revolution.   

Around the world, workers have experienced the same issues, resulting in their observances of Labor Day in September or International Workers Day, or May Day, on May 1. Similarities exist among the celebrations.  

In Mexico, Dia del Trabajo is a public holiday. Like in America, the day is often celebrated with leisure activities and rest, but some cities have parades to celebrate workers and advocate for their rights.   

Ghana began celebrating International Workers Day in 1965, marking the day with a national parade, celebrations, and a focus on issues the country’s workers face.   

More than 80 countries have a national holiday to celebrate workers and their efforts and to call attention to workers’ rights. These national holidays can also be a time for workers to rest and spend time with family and friends.   

How Has Labor Day Evolved?  

A day that started to protest low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions, Labor Day has evolved into a day of leisure in the United States. Most cities and states don’t hold Labor Day marches and parades.  

Labor unions, a force behind the national Labor Day holiday and improvements such as the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, and health and safety laws, have been in decline. Today, 10.8 percent of workers are members of a labor union in the U.S., about half the membership rate of 30 years ago. In the past several years, union membership shows signs of growing.   

Some cities such as Los Angeles are home to Labor Day observances that focus on marginalized workers and issues workers face, most Americans see the holiday as the last holiday weekend of summer. Even fashion rules can focus on the date, such as the tenet of never wearing white after Labor Day.  

Saluting America’s Workers  

While for many the holiday has lost its connection to workers’ movements, Labor Day is a well-earned day off for workers around the country. Some areas hold festivals and concerts during the long Labor Day weekend, and those with Labor Day off enjoy short vacations, sales, or just a chance to sleep in instead of heading to work.  

Labor Day’s colorful history shows the hard-won benefits such as an eight-hour workday, a five-day workweek, higher wages, and a safer workplace. Enjoy Labor Day as the last holiday weekend of the summer but remember how it got its start. 

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