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What Is Labor Day? Learn About The History of The Holiday

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 8/23/2019 Jillian Kramer
a close up of an umbrella © LeoPatrizi - Getty Images

Most Americans recognize Labor Day as a chance to host their last summer barbecues and to shop retailers' weekend sales—who doesn't love having a hot dog and hunting for the best deals?

But there's much more to know about the history of the holiday before kicking off this year's celebrations.

A Peaceful Protest That Turned Violent

An eight-hour work day wasn’t always the golden standard: Two centuries ago, American workers often clocked double digits at physically demanding and often unsafe jobs—something workers protested on September 5, 1882 in the first Labor Day parade, in which approximately 10,000 people peacefully marched from New York’s City Hall, the New York Times archives show.

In the years that followed, protests continued, says Shannon M. Risk, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Niagara University. “In early May 1886, after a series of peaceful protest meetings, the police attacked protesters in Chicago on May 3,” she says. “A protest meeting was scheduled for May 4, 1886, but a bomb sparked violence and the police rounded up ‘anarchist’ suspects.”

Some of those suspects were sentenced to death, Risk says, and “after these events, labor unions in the United States felt that the state and federal governments did not support workers but rather the corrupt corporate interests.”

Not Always a Late Summer Holiday

Labor unions such as the Knights of Labor continued to fight for shorter work days and safer working environments, and these unions “selected May 1, or ‘May Day,’ as an annual worker’s holiday to recognize the efforts of the unions,” Risk explains.

But in 1893, “the U.S. faced a severe economic recession,” Risk says. “Workers at the Pullman Car factory in Chicago went on strike, as did with workers from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. These workers were joined by many others in 1894, and, like the Haymarket Square Protests, workers were brutally put down—this time by police and federal troops.”

Congress didn’t want to honor May 1 as a holiday, fearing its connection to the Haymarket Square Protests, Risk explains. So, instead, the government decided to give a nod to U.S. workers on the first Monday in September. (May 1 remains International Worker’s Day.)

On June 28, 1894, congress passed the act designating Labor Day as the first Monday in September.

The 125th Labor Day

This Labor Day will be observed on September 2, 2019, when “the U.S. Department of Labor celebrates and honors the greatest worker in the world—the American worker,” according to the department’s website. This year’s celebration marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a holiday.

“Unfortunately, some Americans may not realize the origins of either May Day or Labor Day, and how labor movements brought reforms to the workplace by the 20th century,” says Risk.

This Labor Day, keep in mind that the holiday is about honoring the hard workers in our lives, both past and present.

Related Video: Inexpensive Labor Day Ideas (Provided by: Buzz60)

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