Observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Its roots can be traced back to the labor movement in the late nineteenth century, and it officially became a federal holiday in 1894.

Many Americans may not realize that the holiday marking the unofficial end of summer actually originated during one of the most unpleasant eras for American workers. In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, just to survive. In some states, even children as young as 5 worked in mills, factories and mines, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with little or no access to fresh air, restroom facilities, or breaks.

As manufacturing grew and overtook farming as most Americans’ primary source of income, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, became more prominent and vocal. They began to organize strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions, and to compel employers to negotiate better hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent, but it was during this time the tradition of the Labor Day parade was born: on September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City.

The idea of a working man’s holiday, celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other cities, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress, however, didn’t legalize the holiday until 12 years later, as the result of a major labor dispute. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.  On June 26, the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. The federal government intervened by dispatching troops to Chicago, sparking a wave of riots that claimed the lives of more than a dozen workers. In an attempt to calm the massive unrest and repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday.

Today, Labor Day is celebrated across the United States with parades, picnics, and barbecues.  This year, as you celebrate the last long weekend of the summer with friends and family, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for being the hard-working American you are.  A solid work ethic is the lifeblood of a great nation, and a nation without dedicated workers can’t thrive.  No matter what you do for a living, enjoy the upcoming weekend with the knowledge that your contribution continues to make America great!

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