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Labor Day in the United States: History & Meaning

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Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the history and meaning behind the holiday of Labor Day in the United States. Learn about the involvement of labor unions and how it is celebrated today. Updated: 11/09/2022

The Development of Labor Unions

You may think that your eight-hour workday drags on forever, and the occasional 10- and 12-hour shifts you have to work are inhumane. It isn't so bad though. Many employees do get extra pay for working anything beyond a 40-hour work week, and employers are required by law to provide a safe work environment.

Back in the 1860s, there was no regulation about how long people could work. They might work 16 hours a day, six days a week if their employer demanded it. And if an exhausted worker lost a finger or was killed, there was no compensation. The family was given the money he had earned up until the accident, and that was that.

Labor unions would change all that. By organizing workers, labor unions were able to leverage companies and eventually the government into giving the workers shorter hours, better pay, and protection against job injuries. There were a lot of bumps along the way: strikes, riots, a few deaths, and many injuries. The Haymarket Massacre of 1886 was probably the worst, where 11 people died after a bomb was thrown at police during what was supposed to be a peaceful protest for an eight-hour workday.

But things got better. Eventually, workers' wages went up, and the hours and danger level at their jobs went down. The workers naturally celebrated their successes. The first Labor Day parade was on September 5, 1882.

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  • 0:04 The Development of Labor Union
  • 1:31 Labor Day Origins
  • 2:30 Celebration Today
  • 3:28 Lesson Summary
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Labor Day Origins

The parade wasn't official, but it was extremely popular. It wasn't long before the idea of a Labor Day celebration caught on. No one really knows who came up with it first, maybe Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, thought of it. Maybe it was someone else.

The important thing was that labor unions all over the country were soon suggesting it. Eventually, a few states got into the act, too, starting with Oregon. Finally, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day a national holiday. Labor Day has become a way to celebrate the successes of labor unions in the United States and raise awareness.

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