Labor Day History: Why We Celebrate Work

By Betty Wang, JD on September 02, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Happy Labor Day! Do you ever wonder about the history behind a day that Americans generally like to cram with barbecues, shopping, and the last occasion to wear white for a while?

Labor Day has been a federal holiday for more than 100 years now. The holiday celebrates and recognizes all the workers in this country who are the driving force behind the spirit of this day.

So what led politicians to make Labor Day a national holiday? Here's a general overview of how Labor Day came to be:

Labor Day History

According to the Department of Labor, municipal governments passed the first ordinances recognizing Labor Day between 1885 and 1886. After this, state legislation began to develop, with Oregon being the first state to pass a law establishing Labor Day as a holiday.

More states followed, and by 1894, nearly half the states had adopted Labor Day as a holiday to honor workers.

The roots of Labor Day are said to have really begun in the midst of the Pullman Strike, a nationwide railroad strike in 1894 that pitted a railway union against the Pullman railway company and the government, under President Grover Cleveland. The strike involved nearly 4,000 factory workers in response to wage reductions, and ended with U.S. Army intervention. Soldiers were dispatched and sent in to break up the walk-out. This resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen workers.

President Cleveland quickly rushed to sign Labor Day into law, less than a week after the end of the strike. Congress then passed an act, declaring the first Monday of September a national holiday.

A More Modern Interpretation

Despite Labor Day's political roots, the holiday is most commonly seen by Americans as summer capping itself off.

So while you are enjoying the last of the lingering warmth, grilling outdoors, or tearing through the sales racks at the mall, don't forget about the spirit of Labor Day and what it really means.

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