Labor Day: The Workingman’s Holiday


The trade union and labor movements had begun to grow in the late 19th century and trade unionists were the first to propose that a day should be set aside to celebrate labor. In 1882, the Central Labor Union—which was the forerunner of the New York City Central Labor Council—organized the first Labor Day celebration, which included a parade, in New York City.

Oregon became the first state to celebrate Labor Day in 1887—and by the time it was officially made a public holiday seven years later, a total of 30 states were already celebrating it. Congress unanimously voted to approve legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday following the deaths of workers at the hands of U.S. Army and U.S. Marshals Service during the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago.

The first Labor Day parade in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886. “Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.”

The history of labor in the United States has seen many setbacks and triumphs. One such example of the latter occurred in New York in 1909, when 20,000 young immigrant women in the five boroughs decided to strike against deplorable conditions in the garment industry.

Despite fears of losing their jobs at a period of high unemployment, the strikers and their leaders persevered. Through the efforts of this group of women, a 52-hour work week and paid holidays became the norm, stimulating workers in numerous other industries to form unions.

In 1948, President Harry Truman told a rally of workers in Detroit that, “The gains in labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the nation. Labor gains contributed to the nation’s general prosperity.”

In recent years, union membership has been on the decline. In 2016, the union membership rate in the United States was 10.7 percent, which is 0.4 percent lower than in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 240,000 from 2015 to 2016.


According to the bureau, public-sector workers had a union membership rate more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers. Workers in education, training and library occupations had some of the highest union membership rates. Also, black workers were more likely to have union membership than white, Asian or Hispanic workers.

New York State remains the most unionized in the nation. Approximately two million union members represent 23.6 percent of the workforce in the Empire State. The state with the lowest union membership rate was South Carolina (at 1.6 percent).

Every year, Labor Day falls on the first Monday in September. This year’s holiday is on Sept. 4. However, the New York City Central Labor Council’s annual Labor Day Parade will be held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 9. The lineup for the parade will be at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in Manhattan.

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