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The History of Labor Day: Then and Now

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Sure, Labor Day is a great day for a backyard BBQ. For some small businesses, it’s a day to offer discounts and rake in some profits. But do you know the origins and history of Labor Day, and why we really celebrate the holiday?

Who Founded Labor Day?

There’s some controversy over who exactly founded the holiday, but both of the men who are thought to have some involvement were working-class guys who were instrumental in worker’s rights in their home towns.

Peter McGuire was a carpenter and one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor. It’s thought that he was an advocate of celebrating people, “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold” by hosting a special annual day for workers.

However, others believe that Matthew Maguire founded Labor Day. Maguire was a machinist who was an involved member of his local branch of the International Association of Machinists in New Jersey as well as the Central Labor Union in New York. He proposed to the Central Labor Union that they create a holiday, hold a picnic and stage a demonstration.

The First Labor Day

On September 5, 1882, the Central Labor Union followed Matthew Maguire’s recommendation and held its picnic and demonstration in New York. In 1884, it was decided to keep the Labor Day holiday and hold it every year on the first Monday in September. Other cities followed New York’s example and began hosting Labor Day events to celebrate the dedication and skill of American laborers.

Early Labor Day festivities focused on the labor movement and the rights of workers. Parades, festivals, picnics, speeches and demonstrations reminded the American public of the struggle that the working force had endured to change working conditions—and that there was still work to be done to ensure the kinds of rights that would allow Americans to enjoy life in addition to working and being productive citizens.

In 1894, Congress passed the act that made Labor Day a legal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28th.

The History of Labor Day Now

While the average American workweek is only a 40-hour-week (a far cry from the 60 to 70-hour standard week of the 1800s), the current working hours of Americans are trending upwards. Many companies began offering overtime to workers during the recession in order to avoid hiring new employees. And, people who are nervous about their lack of retirement incomes or are concerned that they may be laid off, tend to be happy to work extra hours in order to build up savings or continue a lifestyle that requires a larger income.

Labor Day celebrations today are usually on a much smaller scale than those of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Instead of attending parades, rallies and speeches, Americans gather in their neighbor’s backyards for BBQs and parties. It’s a welcome paid day off for many American workers—but retail employees usually work a longer day than normal as their companies stage Labor Day sales.

Your Employees and Labor Day

Today, take a moment to reflect on all that your employees bring to your business. Not only do you enjoy their hard work and dedication, your business profits from their talent, skills and creativity. While some employers may consider labor laws to be restrictive and detrimental to business, remember that by allowing your employees to focus on aspects of their lives other than working for you, you’re getting well-rested, happier, more fulfilled people at your business every day.

And, in the words of a union worker in 1919, you’re promoting the idea that all Americans should have “time to eat, time to live, time to be happy, time to be a person.”

Now that you know the history of Labor Day be sure to share it with your employees this upcoming year.

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