The History of Labor Day

by Ryan Guina

Today is Labor Day in the US and Canada (Labour Day), a day set aside to celebrate the social and economic achievements of workers (and of course to drink beer and celebrate!). But why do we really need a “day off” to celebrate working? In the US, it almost seems like a holiday that was created for the purpose of giving government workers a day off and giving stores another reason to have a “LABOR DAY SALE! EVERYTHING MUST GO!!!”

Actually, there is a lot more to it than that. Labor Day represents how far we have come as a nation (and on an international level) in regard to human and worker’s rights. By no means is everything perfect in the US or abroad, but working and labor conditions are drastically improved over standards that were in place only 100 years ago, or fewer.

The First Labor Day

The first Labor Day in the US was not a scheduled day off in celebration of a holiday, but an unpaid day off taken by over 10,000 workers who banded together to march in a parade in an attempt to create solidarity in workers rights and create a bond between disparate labor and trade organizations.The parade was followed by a festival for the marching workers and their families. The year was 1882.

By 1894, Labor Day was a US National Holiday, and each of the 50 states has since made Labor Day a state holiday as well. Today, Labor Day is celebrated in many countries, though it is also known by other names such as Labour Day, May Day, and International Workers Day.

An evolution of worker’s rights

While Labor Day is something most Americans (and many international workers) take for granted, it is a lasting reminder of how our society’s working class has evolved. Less than 100 years ago, the US did not have child labor laws or minimum wage laws (except for a 2 year period between 1904-1906 when all child labor was abolished by the National Child Labor Committee, which was later ruled unconstitutional).

In 1938, the US passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, also called the Wages and Hours Bill, which set a national minimum wage, guaranteed time and a half overtime pay (and instituted a 40 hour workweek), and eliminated many forms of child labor in the US. This bill was passed near the end of the Great Depression as part of FDR’s New Deal.

Th Fair Labor Standards Act was a great advancement in worker’s rights in the US, when many workers in the Industrial Revolution were working 12-16 hour days, 6-7 days per week. The mid to late 1800s saw the formation of labor unions, protests, boycotts, and other demonstrations in the attempt to gain worker’s rights. In many of these cases, the protests turned violent and even deadly.

We’ve come a long way

Today we all benefit from the hard work and sacrifices that were made by those who came before us. Though you may have a job that requires you to work on Labor Day, or you may work more than 40 hours per week, you are still afforded many rights that our recent ancestors did not have. We in the US have it better than those in many countries where fair labor and trade laws simply do not exist. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunities we have here in the US.

Now, I’m going to take the rest of the day off.  😉

Related Labor Day reading:

Published or updated September 5, 2011.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Traciatim

Actually, in the US it’s Labor Day. In Canada we speak english making the day Labour Day.


2 Ryan


Thanks for pointing out the spelling error on my part. I noted that when I was reading the background articles for this article but did not write that clearly. I meant to point out only that the holiday was celebrated on the same day, not that the spelling was the same. And we speak English as well. 😉


3 Jarhead

Damn it we speak American. They speak Canadian. And the English speak English. Ok off my rant now. Glad I had the day off.


4 fathersez

We mark May 1st as labour day. I have always thought that this was an international date that the whole world celebrated.

Hmm.. wonder how many countries have other dates?



5 Pat S

Great article… Happy Labor Day!


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