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What is Labor Day? A historical timeline

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Photo credit: LuVo/Getty Images

What is Labor Day? Mention Labor Day, and most people think of three-day weekends, barbecues, and the end of summer. The history of Labor Day is much less well known. This first Monday of September honors American workers and their contributions to the prosperity of the U.S. — a day the 19th century’s labor movement fought for during a dismal time for American workers. Here’s how it came to be.


Polish workers organize the first labor strike on American soil in Jamestown, Virginia. Over the next century and a half, there are hundreds more strikes by workers of all genders, ages and races.


With few protections, many Americans work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, and just barely make a living. In some states, even children as young as 5 years old labor in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of the adults’ pay.

Workers face extremely dangerous working conditions with little to no access to safe, clean facilities or guaranteed breaks.

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With the continued rise of manufacturing over agriculture, labor unions come to the forefront of the battle for better conditions. Strikes and rallies become more common.


Recognized as the first unofficial Labor Day parade, ten thousand workers take unpaid time off to march through Union Square in New York to protest low pay and poor working conditions.


Labor Day is first proposed as a holiday. Even now, no one is sure whether this came from Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters; or Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Regardless, the Central Labor Union adopts a proposal for recognizing the Labor Day holiday, and appoints a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

September 5, 1882

The Central Labor Union holds the first Labor Day celebration in New York City.

September 5, 1883

The Central Labor Union holds its second Labor Day celebration.


The first Monday of September becomes the official holiday. The Central Labor Union encourages other unions and workers’ rights organizations to celebrate and honor American workers on this day.


As labor unions grow, word spreads about Labor Day, and many communities hold celebrations.


The Haymarket Riot, one of many violent protests during this period, results in the deaths of several Chicago policemen and protesters.


Oregon becomes the first state to pass legislation officially recognizing Labor Day as a holiday. Thirty additional states follow over the next seven years.

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Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago go on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives, placing workers’ rights front and center in the public’s view. Federal government efforts to end the strike cause more than a dozen workers’ deaths.


Just six days after the end of the deadly Pullman strike, Congress unanimously votes to approve Labor Day as a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signs it into law.


American workers carry out about 37,000 strikes across the U.S.


Up to 800 American workers die during strikes.


The Colored National Labor Union forms.

What is Labor Day? A historical timeline


Frequent strikes take place over gender equality, immigrant rights, workplace safety, civil rights, workplace rights, retirement and labor laws. New laws are also passed as workplace accidents continue harming and killing workers.


In New York City, 20,000 female shirtwaist makers strike against sweatshop conditions.


A fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City kills nearly 150 workers.


The Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, brings 23,000 men, women and children to the picket lines.


Cesar Chavez forms the AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee


Labor unions join with community activists to enact “living wage” ordinances in communities across the country.


President George W. Bush threatens to strip collective bargaining rights of 170,000 workers in the newly formed Transportation Security Administration.


President Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring the rights of working women to sue over pay discrimination.

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