Why do we celebrate Labor Day and what it means?
On September 6, 1982, members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union march along Fifth Avenue in New York, New York, during the Labor Day Parade.
You probably connect Labor Day with discounts, family picnics, and the unofficial end of summer.
For most Americans, the long weekend represents a much-needed time to meet with friends and family and celebrate one final hurrah before the start of fall.
However, Monday's holiday has a much deeper significance, with origins in the nineteenth-century campaign for better working conditions. Originally, Labor Day was intended to commemorate the workers of the American labor movement.
The beginnings of Labor Day
Labor Day was originally observed informally by labor organizers and individual states in the late 1800s, according to the United States Department of Labor. Although New York was the first state to draft legislation to recognize Labor Day, Oregon was the first to pass legislation in 1887. By the end of 1887, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York had all followed suit.
According to Joshua Freeman, a labor historian and retired professor at City College of New York, the vacation occurred when unions began to rebuild momentum following the 1870s recession.
According to Freeman, two events collided in New York City that contributed to the development of Labor Day. First, the Central Labor Union was established as a "umbrella organization" for unions of various vocations and ethnic groups. In addition, the Knights of Labor, the nation's biggest labor organization at the time, hosted a conference in the city, complete with a massive procession. However, because the parade took place on a Tuesday in early September, many employees were unable to attend.
The congress was a huge success, and unions all throughout the nation started holding their own union festivals in early September, generally on the first Monday of the month.
"At first, it was a little risky to engage because you could get fired for it," Freedman explained. However, as additional states recognized the holiday, it became increasingly popular for companies to offer their employees the day off.
It wasn't until June 28, 1894, that Congress approved legislation designating the first Monday in September an official holiday, known as Labor Day.
According to Freeman, President Grover Cleveland used the troops to quell the Pullman Railroad strike that year. As a "gesture to organized labor," Cleveland pushed through legislation recognizing Labor Day just days after the strike ended, according to Freeman.
What Labor Day means
Unions were pushing for "quite concrete changes in their working circumstances" at the time Labor Day was established, according to Freeman. Workers battled hard for the eight-hour workday that most people now have. Labor Day allowed them to debate their objectives as a group, as well as enabling the country to acknowledge workers' contributions to society.
However, Labor Day has a more radical political history, according to Freeman. According to Freeman, the Knights of Labor maintained the notion that "what we term the capitalist or industrial system is intrinsically exploitative." "It resulted in disparities and imbalances, not only in money but also in power. That is why they wanted working people to have more clout in society."
"There were numerous voices who profoundly criticized this new structure when Labor Day was founded," Freeman continued. At the time, union officials campaigned for alternatives to the "capitalist wage system," such as communal enterprise ownership or socialism.
Labor Day's Evolution
Over time, the extreme measures surrounding Labor Day have been toned down. Most nations throughout the world observe May 1 as a holiday to thank employees. This day was also established in the late 1800s. Americans used to celebrate both May 1 and Labor Day, according to Freeman.
However, in comparison to May 1, which was initially founded by the Marxist International Socialist Congress, Labor Day has come to be considered as the more "moderate" of the two holidays.
"Around the turn of the 20th century, calls to transform American life largely disappeared from Labor Day," Freeman said. "As more and more employers began giving all their workers the day off, it became less and less associated with unions."
Labor Day festivities saw a short comeback after WWII II, particularly in areas such as Detroit and New York City. They had subsided by the 1960s and 1970s.
"I think most people are thinking about the end of summer vacation," remarked Freeman. "It's less identified with its roots."
Is it OK to wear white after Labor Day?
You may have heard of the outdated rule that you shouldn't wear white after Labor Day.
But don't worry: there are no fashion police waiting to see if you wear a white shirt in September. And the idea actually has a pretty problematic origin.
According to Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the rule was one of many 19th-century style habits used to distinguish between the upper and middle classes.
"As more and more middle-class or lower-middle-class people had enough money to dress fashionably, there were more and more rules so that upper-class people could say, 'Yeah, but you're doing it wrong,'".
White was tied to summer vacation - a privilege few could afford. Labor Day meant "re-entry" into city life for the upper class and a farewell to white summer dress after a summer of leisure, Steele said.
But that arbitrary rule all but disappeared by the 1970s, Steele says. The "youth quake " of the 1960s allowed young people to challenge old style norms, including the Labor Day rule.
"It was part of a much broader anti-fashion movement," Steele says.