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What Does Labor Day Mean to You?

The original meaning of Labor Day is lost on a lot of people in the United States and Canada. The first Monday in September is variously the final long lazy weekend of the summer, the last breath of freedom for students heading back to school, or the first break in the school year for those students who resume classes in August.

NetSuite Waterloo employees having fun in the sun

Celebrating Workers

Many forget that this public holiday sprang from the labor movement, which in turn was rooted in the growing tensions between factory workers and their employers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The movement had a strong political component in Europe, becoming associated with socialism, communism and anarchism because the struggle between owners and workers was seen primarily as another symptom of class distinction.

In the United States and Canada, while connections existed between the labor movement and left wing political interests, the movement focused on forging solidarity as a bargaining tool for improving wages and working conditions.

In much of the world (instead of sharing our cherished end of summer long weekend), International Workers’ Day is celebrated on May 1. Ironically, this date was chosen by The Second International, an organization of socialist and labor parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889, to commemorate the Haymarket affair[1], one of the most violent episodes in the American labor movement.

Why is Labor Day in September?

The Canadian and American celebration of workers found its place at the end of summer for a number of reasons.

It began with a labor rally organized by the Toronto Trades Assembly on April 15, 1872 in Toronto, Canada. Workers rallied to protest the imprisonment of 24 leaders of the Typographical Union, who had been imprisoned for violating anti-strike laws. While the rally failed to gain the workers freedom, it generated considerable sympathy across Canada and the U.S. Throughout that spring and the summer that followed, the twenty-four workers continued to languish in prison while worker sentiment seethed.

Finally, on the third of September, growing frustration resulted in a mile-long parade through Ottawa that caught the attention of Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. Moved by the plight of the 24 imprisoned workers and the passion of the protestors, MacDonald joined the parade and later succeeded in having a number of anti-labor laws repealed.

In subsequent years, parades and festivals were held across Canada supporting workers’ rights and honoring the efforts of 1872. These celebrations were accompanied by increasing calls for a national holiday to honor workers.

American labor supporters soon caught the wave, and the first U.S Labor Day Parade was held on September 5, 1882

Finally, when the government began to seriously consider an official day to honor workers, both May 1 and the beginning of September were considered. In the end, the same association that made The Second International choose May 1 (i.e. Haymarket) was cited as a good reason to reject that date in North America. Preferring to mark Labor Day as a celebration of labor rather than a memorial to one of its most tragic events, the decision makers chose the first Monday in September.

Labor Day Becomes a National Holiday

Although originally inspired by early successes in Canada, labor supporters in the U.S. didn’t take long to overtake Canada in their efforts to gain recognition. After extensive lobbying from labor organizations, the U.S. Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday in the United States on June 28, 1894. Twenty-five days later the Canadian Parliament did the same.

Make the Most of Labor Day

Whatever Labor Day means to you, make the most of it. Whether you reward your hardworking self with one final summer fiesta or take time to ponder the grit of those early workers who fought for safer workplaces, better wages and reasonable hours—make it count. This is the one day we set aside each year to honor and respect the efforts of all hard-working people.

Now, hold that thought—and see if you can extend it year round!


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Additional References

Chuck Nugent. Origins of Labor Day Holiday in North America.

Canada Info: Labour Day.

Haymarket and Mayday. The Encyclopedia of Chicago

Haymarket Square Riot

William J. Adelman. The Haymarket Affair. Illinois Labor History Society.

[1] Haymarket Riot, United States History

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What Does Labor Day Mean to You?
Whatever Labor Day means to you, make the most of it.

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