Labor Day is celebrated in the United States on the first Monday in September. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the day, "is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." The agency also notes that the day celebrates the "strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
The Labor Department names two people as the honorary "Father of Labor Day." The first is Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Jointers, who made the suggestion to set aside a general day to recognize all laborers. The second is Matthew Maguire, a working machinist and secretary of the International Association of Machinists, Local 344 branch in Paterson, New Jersey. Research indicates that Maguire proposed recognizing the holiday in 1882 at the Central Labor Union in New York. History supports the fact that the Central Labor Union set aside a day and established a committee to plan a picnic and demonstration parade in support of labor that same year.
At first, Labor Day was celebrated as a community holiday. The largest celebration happened on September 5, 1882, a Tuesday, at the Central Labor Union in New York. The group held the second celebration a year to the date later. The Central Labor Union promoted the idea of a nationwide celebration of the worker and suggested the first Monday each September as the official date. Beginning in 1884, many local and state labor organizations planned picnics, parades and demonstrations. The Labor Department reports that by 1885, many major cities saw celebrations, but official state recognition of the holiday came in the late 1880s. The first state to recognize the holiday was Oregon in 1887; state legislatures in New York, Colorado, Massachusetts and New Jersey established legal celebrations the next year.
As state and cities celebrated Labor Day, the American Federation of Labor organized a national movement to recognize workers at picnics on the Sunday afternoon preceding Labor Day Tuesday each year. Labor Day Sunday was officially recognized by the AFL in 1909.
Official Federal Holiday
U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed the law recognizing Labor Day as the first Monday in September in 1894. Cleveland, motivated by re-election concerns, had just broken a railroad strike organized by Eugene V. Debs' American Railway Union with the use of federal troops. In an attempt at labor appeasement, Cleveland signed the official recognition, but he failed to win a second term as president.
Rest v. Organizing
While early Labor Day celebrations incorporated demonstrations against unfair labor practices and parades of workers, now celebrations focus more on family events with picnics and relaxation, rather than activist activities. The movement from Labor Day Tuesday to Monday encouraged workers to take the long weekend for recreational travel.