Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

(Last Updated On: September 3, 2020)

Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

If you’re fortunate enough to get the three day weekend, Labor Day is a pretty chill weekend to relax and enjoy… Whatever it is you enjoy doing on Labor Day. Seems like people really enjoy grilling hot dogs, since Labor Day lines up a bit with hot dog and the American football season. But most of us probably just see it marked off on the calendar and take our days off where we can get them–who’s going to question an extra day to sleep in? But why do we have it? For those of us fortunate to even get the day off in the first place, why do we celebrate labor day?

Further Reading: 10 Interesting Labor Day Facts You Might Not Know

Does Everyone Get Labor Day Off?

If you’ve ever been semi-functional on Labor Day, you’ve probably seen that society doesn’t just up and grind to a halt on the first September Monday. There are people who definitely still have to work, and like many holidays, it’s normally minimum or low-wage employees who get the short end of the stick. Which is a little depressing given what the day celebrates.

The vast majority of employers give at least some amount of their employees Labor Day, above 90% in 2019. But closer to the opposing end of the spectrum, 40% of businesses were still open–meaning some people had to come in. 

In 2018 some 91% of all civilian and private workers had the day off–while 96% of federal workers did. You probably wouldn’t be surprised that management consistently had more people taking time off, with 95% getting the day off compared to only 84% of service workers getting the day to themselves.

It also probably isn’t surprising at all that part time workers got the least time off, with 79% of them getting the holiday (in the civilian sector). If you want to see more statistics on Labor Day–as well as other American holidays–you can head to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics here.

Holiday Law

Labor Day, like many other holidays, does have federal recognition. According to the Department of Labor, it started with municipal ordinances between 1885 and 1886. So by now, Labor Day is a federal holiday. But of course, there are no labor laws requiring employers to give their workers time off for holidays–though Labor Day is considered a paid one.

It’s also one of the most widely observed holidays when it comes to giving workers a day off. But, unfortunately for workers, holidays are not legally considered overtime. Employers can do whatever it is they want, really. Labor Day, just like any other holiday, is just another business day in the eyes of the federal government.

While we’re on it, America is one of the few countries that actually has 0 mandated paid leave per year for its workers. The US also has no paid public holidays or vacation days, where it is in the vast minority. Here’s some data.

What we’re trying to say is that if you’re in the US, you’re basically at the mercy of your employer. Not even with Labor Day–really just kinda generally.

Oh, and if you were wondering why we’ve basically only talked about America so far, that’s because Labor Day is like the American version of International Workers’ Day. International Workers’ Day falls on May 1st, you might also know it as May Day.

In case you were wondering, Canada’s Labor Day also lands on the first Monday of September. 

Why Is American Labor Day Different?

Well it’s different for the reason you probably think it is. Its origins lie in events occurring on American soil. 

As late 19th century labor movements gained traction and unions gained strength, people started to figure out that the interests of workers weren’t really at the forefront. This led to an assembly of the Knights of Labor in September of 1882 with parades in New York City from the Central Labor Union. The Knights of Labor were meeting in New York, hence the parades.

The Knights of Labor were founded in the 1860s, and were champions of the 8 hour day, where people wouldn’t be obligated to work past that mark. The 8 hour day didn’t become codified until 1916.

Anyway, with the CLU parading around the assembly, the CLU’s then secretary Matthew Maguire is said to have proposed a Labor Day to be celebrated on the first Monday of each September.

Though other accounts maintain that Labor Day is owed to the American Federation of Labor’s vice president Peter J. McGuire–though that account is also kind of his. It’s said that he wrote to the CLU regarding a worker’s holiday in May of 1882. So that doesn’t really change the story, but he was kind of adamant about it.

The Spirit of Labor Day

So the long short of why Americans celebrate Labor Day? Workers were real tired of working super long hours with no time off.

As the advent of e-mail and constant connectedness has workers constantly plugged into their jobs, with increasing hours, the spirit that sparked Labor Day in the 1880s may be rearing its head once more. With the USA continually eroding the rights of its workers and ranking quite low on the Global Rights Index, the US government doesn’t seem too keen on lending its workers a hand. 

These workers rights violations, as of 2019-2020 seem to be at a 7 year high–even before the advent of widespread working from home (thanks to a pandemic). 

So that’s depressing.

So you know what Labor Day is, but what about what it isn’t? Test yourself here.

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About Kyler 561 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and has just finished his undergraduate at the University of Washington. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019 and has accumulated so much random, general knowledge he'd rather not think about it. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.