The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. Thousands of workers took time off from work to march from City Hall to Union Square for the first Labor Day Parade in US history. Organized by the Central Labor Union, this celebration was proposed as a parade that would show the strength and spirit of trade and labor organizations followed by a festival for the workers and their families.
The celebration spread over the next few years with the first governmental recognition of the holiday coming from municipal governments. Oregon became the first state to enact a law recognizing Labor Day as a State holiday in 1887, with four more states following suits later in the same year. By 1894 more than 23 states recognized the holiday, but it was not until a labor strike with ensuing riots and deaths that the U.S. government would pass legislation naming the first Monday in September as a federal holiday.
In June of 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26 the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.
In response to a groundswell of support for a national holiday celebrating the nation’s workers, Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced S. 730 to the 53rd Congress to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September each year. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894, during the Pullman strike, which was declared over on August 3, 1894.
More recently Labor Day has come to symbolize the end of summer vacation and the start of fall traditions, including football, and the end of wearing white clothing. Ironically, for many workers, retailers’ “big sales events” tend to make it more of a day for work rather than a day for festivity.
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