This weekend, Labor Day will mark the unofficial end of this very strange summer. It was the summer of floating aimlessly in our pools dreaming of vacations not taken. Or if you’re lucky enough to still have a job it was a summer of endless zoom calls in makeshift home offices with restless spouses, kids, and pets all scampering in the background. But regardless of how we spent these hot summer months, the labor day weekend will mean our final opportunity to celebrate our bathing suits and backyard BBQs before the chill fall air settles in.
But did you ever wonder why we get to celebrate Labor Day or who, what, where, and when it all started? Most people know it’s a workers holiday (hence labor) but did you know it was first celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882? On that first labor day, thousands of men (and women*) marched from City Hall to Union Square to both honor the working-class men and to bring attention to the unjust labor laws they worked under. Back then most workers put in a 10 to 12 hour day, six days a week, with no sick days, no paid vacations, and very few breaks. It was the labor unions that were fighting for worker’s rights, calling for fair wages, an 8-hour workday, an end to child labor, and safe working conditions. To bring attention to these causes, the parade was organized under the Central Labor Union of New York, and advertised as a display of the “strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations”.
Men (and women*) belonging to over 20 different unions, from shoemakers to typesetters to cigar makers (with the largest show of force that day!), marched shoulder to shoulder, each under its own banner and keeping step to the beat of its own band. THE SUN, Sept. 6, 1882, described it as “A Great Parade on Workingmen of New York and its vicinity. As soon as the streets began to fill there were seen among the rest in every quarter of the city men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession. Signs of the parade were to be seen on every hand, and apparently little else was talked of in the stores and on the streets.”
THE SUN goes on to report, “As far ahead as one could see and as far down the side street as forms and faces could be distinguished, the windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.” When the parade passed Canal Street, hundreds of seamstresses hung out the windows, waving handkerchiefs and blowing kisses to the tens of thousands of men who marched that day.
After all contingents reached Union Square, the festivities moved uptown to Elm Park where the marchers celebrated to the sounds of Irish bagpipers and German singers. They danced under parade banners with their call-to-action campaigns such as “All Men are Born Alike and Equal” and “The inherited rights of man must be restored” . They listened to speeches proclaiming “ the procession as an uprising of level-headed humanity” and how “Labor, since it produces everything, should have more recognition, and can secure it only by concerted action of workingmen at the polls”. Over 100 years later, although we now enjoy the benefits these first marchers called for, I would say some of their grievances can still be heard today.
These days the holiday is better known as a marker to the end of summer, the last hurrah before we run out and buy the Halloween candy (OK, who else is going as Dr. Fauci??). But as I float aimlessly in the pool this weekend, sipping one more gin and tonic (hey, don’t judge me), I’m going to party like its 1882 and reflect on the positive things, like the 8-hour workday, health insurance, and the better wages those first marchers fought for on the streets of New York. And yes, I might even blow a kiss to the proverbial ‘working men and women’ for their hard-fought battles that defined the American workplace today.
Oh, and I'm also celebrating that we now have the Rabies Shot (!!)
*In this article (and women) is in parenthesis because none of the news articles mention the women marchers, although they are seen in the images. I am hereby adding them in.