A Brief History of Labor Day


By Thomas Nash

For about 120 years, Americans have enjoyed the first Monday of September as a day off of work.  There are parades in some cities, many attend BBQs and wear red, white and blue, and others simply stay home and relax.  While the majority of Americans enjoy the day, very few are aware of its origins.

Labor Day was first celebrated on Monday, September 5th, 1882 by a Union organization called “The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor”.  The Knights was founded by a Philadelphia based tailor named U.S Stevens on Thanksgiving of 1869.  While the original goal was to organize garment workers, it eventually accepted workers of other industries.  The goal then changed from organizing one industry to organizing all industry under the umbrella of the Knights.

The Knights envisioned an “amalgamation” of all workers united for the common cause of workers’ rights.  While there were some noble ideals that the Knights stood for, many of their positions wreaked of the foul stench which Socialism left when it marked its territory amongst unions.   If one reads the platform of the Knights of Labor, one would find clauses that would (and ultimately did) establish more government intervention in and oversight of labor, the abolition of private contracts in the labor force, the reservation of land for the workers rather than for private industry or speculation, government control of savings accounts, the government takeover of all communication mediums and transport structures and the establishment of “co-operative institutions” where workers all share equally the fruits of their labor which would necessarily eliminate the “wage system”.

The Knights paraded through New York City on the first Monday of September every year beginning in 1882.  In 1884, George K. Lloyd of the Knights of Labor, proposed a declaration that the first Monday of September should thereafter be recognized as a holiday called Labor Day.  The proposition was adopted.  The Knights lobbied the State Legislature to enact a law recognizing Labor Day as a state holiday.  On January 4th, 1887, New York became the first state to recognize Labor Day.

Historically, a labor day has been celebrated by European and other nations on May 1st.  This tradition stretches back to pagan days and has evolved into a labor or workers holiday.  It is commonly now referred to as International Worker’s Day, a day especially sacred to the Soviet Union.


Out of the Knights of Labor grew the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  They were founded in 1881.  It was not long before they forged their alliances with the Socialist party.  Both union groups and socialists appeared to fight for the same causes and thus their partnership was inevitable.  According to Frank Tracy Carlton, “The phrases of the socialists are frequently upon the lips of the union man.” (Carlton, Frank Tracy. The History and Problems of Organized Labor. 1919.)  It was clear even at the dawn of union influence that they and the socialist/communist movement were closely allied.

Against the wishes of the Knights, the AFL moved to change the date of Labor Day to May 1st in order to be more aligned with the International Labor movement, no doubt the influence of their socialist comrades.  The AFL used and continues to use May 1st as a day of worker protest.  While they never were able to move the holiday, they and many other union organizations observe it.

The federal government recognized Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894 largely in response to the Pullman Strike which ended in the deaths of some of the workers who protested at the hands of federal agents and military.  President Cleveland saw this holiday as a way to pacify the labor unions whose passions were inflamed by the incident.  As we have learned throughout history, until the ultimate goal of a “co-operative” worker society is met, we will never be able to pacify the unions.

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