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September 02, 2018

What is Labor Day? How the working holiday came to be

An explainer on why this national holiday exists, and how it came to be

History Labor Day Weekend
Labor Day Pixabay/ PhillyVoice


Unofficially, Labor Day means barbeque, trips down the Shore, pool parties, and watermelon. To the 21st century America, it's the unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. 

But officially, Labor Day began as a way to give American laborers a well-needed day off.

During the 19th century, workers were often forced to put in 12 hours work days, seven days a week. They were over worked and under paid, and conditions inside the workplace were unsafe. So according to the archives of the New York Times on Sept. 5, 1882 workers went on strike and held a parade and picnic in a New York City park instead. 

But back then, it wasn't an official holiday just yet. Many risked their jobs by participating. 

It wouldn't be until years later that the government would workers pushing for a day off. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland made it a legal federal holiday for everyone after unions held heated strikes that fed the unrest of laboring, working class Americans.

The creator of the holiday has been credited to two men; scholars dispute which of the two should get the credit.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Peter McGuire, a union leader and child of immigrants, apparently stood before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which became one of the largest trade unions at the time. 

However, some scholars say that the true leader of the movement was Matthew Maguire, who was the secretary of and a leading figure in the Central Labor Union of New York in 1882. 

Either way, we are grateful to both Maguire and McGuire for the contributions they made to our list of national holidays. 

These days, there are more than 160 million people in the American work force, as of July 2018.

On average, those workers put in about 39 hours of work per week. And apparently 8.1 million of those workers, or 5.2% of the labor population, hold multiple jobs. 

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