Tony Dobrowolski: Why Labor Day Matters



We celebrate Labor Day this weekend, and for most of us it's a chance to have an extra day off before we plunge head long into fall.

Labor Day also signifies the beginning of college football season; big sales at various retail outlets; the start of a new school year; and the end of summer.

It's great to be off -- who doesn't like another three day weekend? But with so many of those weekends scattered throughout the calendar now, I think we've lost the real significance of what Labor Day means.

So what does it mean?

Labor Day was created by the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievement of American workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

It's never officially been established who the founder of Labor Day was. Some say it was Peter J. McGuire, an Irish immigrant who helped found the American Federation of Labor in 1881; others contend a New Jersey labor leader named Matthew McGuire came up with the idea.

In any event, the proposal was approved by the Central Labor Union, an early trade organization based in the New York City area, which organized the first Labor Day Parade in New York on Monday, Sept. 5, 1882.

The parade was made up of marchers from different unions who had heard about the event, but a jeweler's union from New Jersey inadvertently started a Labor Day tradition when it brought its own band.

As the marchers weaved their way through the streets of New York, they picked up supporters along the way. It's estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 men and women actually participated.

When the parade ended at a park on 92nd Street many of the participants left to go to work, remember this was the 19th century. But those who stayed witnessed the beginning of another Labor Day tradition -- the picnic.

Besides food, the celebration included an abundance of cigars, and a great number of libations, "lager beer kegs...mounted in every conceivable place" according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Apparently, a good time was had by all. The Department of Labor actually refers to this first celebration as "Labor Daze" on its website. And unlike today where violence seems to erupt every time large groups of people congregate in public, everything went smoothly.

New York City held a second Labor Day celebration the following year, but it took four more years until Oregon became the first state to officially pass legislation that allowed for the celebration of Labor Day in 1887. By the end of that year, four more states, including Massachusetts, had passed their own bills.

The federal government didn't officially recognize Labor Day until 1894, but by then 23 states had already passed ordinances allowing their own celebrations.

Speeches by prominent labor leaders on Labor Day gradually evolved. The focus of the first celebrations were geared more towards the day's economic and civic significance of the day. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution that that called for the Sunday before Labor Day to be known as Labor Sunday, which was intended to be a tribute to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

There have been so many changes in the workforce and workplace the last few years that it's easy to forget what labor used in this country used to stand for.

Organized labor isn't what it once was. Nobody seems to work regular shifts anymore. In today's economy, it's not unusual for people to work two or more jobs, or live in families where both parents are in the labor force. Underemployment has replaced unemployment as the new economic buzzword.

The definition of the workplace has changed, too. Modern technology has made it possible to run a business from almost anywhere with either a laptop or a mobile device. You can even go to college now without ever stepping foot on a campus.

Basic workplace social interactions that we once took for granted like dressing appropriately, or speaking effectively, have all but disappeared in many of our young people, a truly frightening development in a country as economically advanced as ours.

Given all these changes it's easy to see why people have forgotten why holidays like Labor Day actually exist.

It's not just another day off. We need to remember that, and should never forget.

Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at


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