Building Labor Day in the United States

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Family, barbecues, and the beach. That's what comes to mind for most Americans when they think of labor day. But that's only part of the story. In the United States, we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September, every year. But how did this tradition begin? Well, it all goes back to the peak of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th Century, and actually, has roots in construction. At the time, working conditions were awful. Factories and workshops were filthy, windowless dungeons. Construction sites had little-to-no safety measures in place, and workers risked their lives handling heavy machinery at great heights without PPE. The average American worked 10-12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. However, change was afoot. Unions were just beginning to form, and workers decided it was time to demand better treatment.

According to the US Department of Labor, the first unofficial Labor Day was held in New York City on Tuesday, September 5th, 1882, as strike meant to show that laborers are rising up together. The plan for the day included a march, and at first, law enforcement expected a riot to break out. However, the event worked out in the end, and records state that potentially up to 25,000 laborers and their families showed up in support and solidarity. Despite the day's success, it wasn't until 1887 that it became an official holiday in five states. In 1894, Congress finally passed an act to make Labor Day a federal holiday.


Enjoying Traditions

While the first Labor Day was as much of a strike as it was a unifying event, we now just sit back, relax, and enjoy the holiday, thanks to those hard working men and women who stood up to authority over 100 years ago. However, the festivities haven't changed too much over span of the holiday's existence. Many assume that Labor Day activities are a direct reflection of the time of year, and while the hot summer weather is a factor in the outdoor aspects of the day, the traditions we participate in also reflect the holiday's origins.

The first Labor Day strike was for better working rights, and the workers' protest marched through New York City. The march was followed by a picnic featuring political speeches and apparently plenty of beer. While we still hold parades today, they serve as more of a celebration of American laborers than a political march, and we are given the day off, as opposed to a strike, we still follow the tradition of banding together as working Americans. Many communities celebrate with picnics, barbecues, and block parties. Not surprisingly, it is the third most popular holiday for grilling, behind The Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

Construction's Role

In addition to making up a large part of the United States workforce both in the late 1900s and now, construction workers are also one of the main reasons that Labor Day exists today. It is debated on who exactly came up with the concept of the holiday, but apparently, either Peter McGuire, who was the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union was the individual originally responsible, so either way, we can technically thank a McGuire / Maguire - and the construction industry - for Labor Day. Records are unclear, but regardless, the two men, in addition to other working class members of United States society contributed to creating this beloved annual tradition.

While certain jobs that require a constant presence, such as emergency response and law enforcement services, need employees to report for work on Labor Day, for the most part, most professions - including nearly all construction industry professionals - get to enjoy the Labor Day holiday by participating in its original intention: not working. But the holiday is more than just playing hooky. What it's really about is enjoying the fruits of your labor. For many, that's where the barbecues and beaches come from. What the McGuire/Maguire and other construction workers realized was 'why work hard if you're never around to enjoy it?

Celebrate Every Day

Even though Labor Day only comes once a year, we can celebrate our contributions to the American workforce every day. Our jobs may be demanding, tiring, and occasionally frustrating, but the conditions we are given are a luxury in comparison to those faced by our ancestors 100 years ago. The laws set into place in the US protect workers from ever having to face the strife that once plagued laborers at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Because of the sacrifices made by hard working Americans back in the day, modern-day citizens are able to enjoy shorter work weeks, a greater quality of life, and more time to spend with friends and family. Although we currently just celebrate Labor Day as a fun three-day weekend to wrap up the summer, it is important to reflect on the history of this symbolic holiday.