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Labor Day in the United States: History & Meaning

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. When you are finished, take the quiz and see what you've learned.

The Not-So-Good Days

You may think that your eight-hour work day drags on forever, and the occasional ten- and twelve-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 forty-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 sixteen 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.

8 Hours of Work, 8 Hours of Sleep, and 8 Hours for What You Will

Labor unions would change all that. By organizing workers, 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 May 4th, 1886, was probably the worst. 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.

The First Labor Day
Labor Day

Labor Day!

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. It has become a way to celebrate the successes of labor unions in the United States and raise awareness.

The U.S. wasn't the only country in the world to celebrate Labor Day. Throughout the world there are about 80 countries that have a similar holiday. Of course, they call it International Workers' Day, and almost all of them celebrate it on May 1 each year.

A Labor Union Conference at Port Huron
Labor Union

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