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A History of Labor Day

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a holiday set aside to celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the nation. More than a century after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, the General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, first suggested a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." Others believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later secretary of a New Jersey chapter of the International Association of Machinists, proposed the holiday in 1882.

Regardless of who founded the holiday, it is clear that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic that year. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. Around the same time, the Socialist Party in Europe held a similar celebration of the working class on May 1. This date eventually became known as May Day, and was celebrated by Socialists and Communists in commemoration of the working man. In order to reject any identification with Communism, the first Monday in September was selected as the date to observe Labor Day. The Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in l885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country. From that point on, various cities and states enacted legislation to officially recognize Labor Day. By 1894, half the states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers. On June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act, signed by President Grover Clevelan, making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

In its initial proposal, the Central Labor Union outlined how the holiday would be celebrated. The union wanted a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Throughout the years, the meaning of ' Labor Day has largely diminished, with the holiday now being a general end of the summer celebration. It is often marked by outdoor family gatherings and barbecues.