If Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, then Labor Day weekend is its end, and just as the “meaning” of Memorial Day has sadly been lost in recent years, the truth is very much the same for Labor Day. Its name suggests it is a day to honor the workforce and that’s true, but its origins and exact meaning are still a bit more complicated.

What it also shares with Memorial Day is that it came to be in the post-American Civil War era but for very different reasons. Memorial Day was meant to honor those military personnel who paid the ultimate price and gave their lives in service of the country. It has evolved into a holiday of fun in the sun, and a time to take on late spring projects. By contrast Labor Day was always meant to honor the American worker with a day off.

It is celebrated on the first Monday in September, and as a result can fall on September 1 through September 7.

Not American May Day

One of the great misconceptions, in part because of its association with the American labor movement, is that it is similar to International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated on May 1. However, while May Day was chosen by the Second International of socialist and labor parties to commemorate the Haymarket riot that followed a labor demonstration in Chicago on May 4, 1886, the days are quite distinct.

Labor Day is not simply an American May Day.

“No it isn’t, it is its own unique holiday,” explained Angelica Gianchandani, M.A., practitioner in residence at the Pompea College of Business at the University of New Haven. “Labor Day honors the achievement and contributions of the American workers.”

The exact beginnings are a bit more complicated. One story said that the event’s origins can be traced back to the Knights of Labor, an American labor federation that promoted the social and cultural uplift of workers. The group reportedly held a public parade with other labor organizations on September 5, 1882. Soon after, the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York, Matthew Maguire, proposed that a national Labor Day holiday would be held each year on the first Monday of September.

Another story tells that a different man, Peter J. McGuire – no relation – vice president of the American Federation of Labor had seen labor parades in Canada on May Day of 1882, and suggested that a similar parade be held in New York. Regardless of whether it was Maguire or McGuire, the history agrees that the first parade took place in New York in 1882. Some 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square.

The event caught on, and instead of trying to stamp it out, many states passed legislation that would recognize the day off for workers.

“This was a time when workers were working seven days a week, and even young children worked long hours,” Gianchandani told ClearanceJobs. “The holiday that gives us a break at the end of the summer was thus born out of the poor working conditions that existed in the urban centers at the end of the 19th century. It was meant to acknowledge the American worker by giving them a break.”

However, in the early days it wasn’t the workers who received that break.

Labor Day Becomes a Federal Holiday

It was Oregon in 1887 that became the first state to make Labor Day an official public holiday. Within a few years, 30 states officially celebrated the holiday, and in 1894 Congress passed a bill recognizing the first Monday in September as Labor Day. But when President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law that year, it was a holiday for federal workers. Even until the 1930s it was still just another day on the factory floor or assembly line.

Over time the day was one that universally honored the worker, but even then there is some irony that more people than ever work over the weekend – at least in the retail and service industries. For those who have a three day weekend it is a time to head to the movies, take a road trip and most notably go shopping!

“From a marketing standpoint, it is has become a big shopping weekend, and is now only second to Black Friday in terms of retail sales – but we need to consider too that Black Friday is spread out with Local Saturday and Cyber Monday dividing the overall sales,” said Gianchandani. “But Labor Day has become an important economy booster as it helps drive sales.”

As far as the origins, it is likely that few may know how it was created, but it continues to honor the worker.

“It is possible that we have lost sight of it, but we have to pull back and remind everyone of its importance,” said Gianchandani. “People think of this more commercially, which is almost ironic given its beginning.”

It is also important too that while the day may have had its beginnings with the labor movement and was meant to give some needed time off to the laborers, today it is a much for white collar workers and government employees alike.

“They’re all part of the work force,” Gianchandani told ClearanceJobs. “They should be included in the day off.”


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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.