Labor Day in the United States occurs on the first Monday of each September. While it is not the official end of summer (September 23), the holiday weekend is considered the cultural end of the season and is celebrated with picnics, barbeques, and other leisure activities. While many workers today enjoy the day off, they may not realize the working conditions that led to its creation.
In the 1880s, manufacturing workers averaged more than 60 hours a week at their job, with many working seven days a week. These long hours inspired union organizers to fight for an eight-hour work day, a six-day work week, and more days off. Many politicians and business owners were in favor of giving workers more time off. But their interest was more selfish than concerned with the well-being of their employees as workers without free time were unable to spend their wages on entertainment, travel, and dining out. By shortening the work week, the working class became the consuming class.
The first Labor Day occurred in 1882 in New York City under the direction of city’s Central Labor Union. The CLU was created to bring small unions together and the organizers of the first Labor Day sought to hold an event that would bring together different types of workers to meet each other and find common ground. Because no government or company would recognize the first Monday in September as a day off from work, the CLU declared a one-day strike. All striking workers marched in a parade followed by a picnic. A reporter from the New York Tribune described the event as a long political barbecue with “rather dull speeches.” Twelve years later, half the states in the country recognized Labor Day as a holiday, prompting President Grover Cleveland to sign the Labor Day bill into law in June 1894. The photographs below from the Library of Congress, the Lawrence History Center, and other historical societies, show what working conditions were like in mill towns in the years just after the declaration of Labor Day.