The history of Labor Day: It's not just another day off

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The History Of Labor Day

On the first Monday of September, the United States celebrates Labor Day. But just what is Labor Day? The fact is, while most of us are happy to get the day off or go to a parade, most of us don't know the history behind the holiday -- only that it's been pegged as the last day of the year that you can wear white pants.

The first Labor Day parade was held September 5th, 1882 in New York City to celebrate the strength of trade and labor organizations and to host a festival for workers' families. But there are conflicting theories as to who created the holiday. Some say that it was Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor, but others argue it was Matthew Maguire who proposed the holiday while serving as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.

READ MORE SPECIAL COVERAGE ON LABOR DAY: America's strongest labor unions still hold political power

What is clear is that the celebration became an unofficial annual affair in New York City held on the first Monday of September. Other states and cities were following suit by 1885, after some urging from the Central Labor Union.

But the history of Labor Day isn't all parades and parties. Strikes and riots also played a huge role, like Chicago's Haymarket riot. The Haymarket riot left eight people died, and was a major setback for the organized labor movement in America.

Photos of the evolution of American labor:
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Labor Day
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The history of Labor Day: It's not just another day off

Eight-year-old Emma Kelly picks shrimp from 3 a.m. until 4 p.m. in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

A steel worker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Fernance Silvia, a 7 year old newsie, would sell papers until 8 p.m. some nights.

New Bedford, August 22, 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Children waiting to be smuggled in Winchendon, Massachusetts in 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

A worker in an Illinois Steel Mill

(Stanley Kubrick, photographer, LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Rosie the Riveter

(AP Photo/Joan Seidel, File)

Children going to work at the Chesapeake Knitting Mills in Berkley, VA on June 15, 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

As in the sub-assembly departments, men and women work together in the final assembly of North American P-51 Mustang fighters.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

With so many working aged men fighting in WWII, women, who had long been denied rights in the workplace, received the opportunity to assist the war effort and change attitudes in American workplaces.

( Alfred T. Palmer, United States. Office of War Information. Bureau of Public Inquiries, Library of Congress)

Women at work on bomber, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California 1939

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Five-year-old picks shrimp in 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Georgia turpentine worker skins bark from a tree, 1937.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Young Boys work in a textile factory

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Young boys working at a cigarette factory on June 6, 1911 in Danville, Virginia.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Though much of his legacy is marred by steel mill wage and safety strife, Andrew Carnegie's Steel Company was a major force in America's industrial boom. Later in his life, Carnegie devoted himself to philanthropy, building libraries and universities across the country.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska and Representative Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, both Republicans, were the chief sponsors of the Norris- La Guardia Act that created an avenue for workers at the time to unionize peacefully.

(Library of Congress)

Young workers in the Stearns Silk Factory in Petersburg, Virginia in 1911.

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Child protesters in New York

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Shots of the young workers going in to Ayer Mill

Location: Lawrence, Massachusetts.

( Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

Young workers leave a mill at Sagamore Manufacturing Company on August 26, 1911 in Fall River, Massachusetts.

( Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

1915 Labor Day Parade

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

1909 Labor Day Parade

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Bakers carry loaves of bread in the parade in 1909

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Members of the oil workers union in front of their headquarters, Seminole, Oklahoma

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Veteran oil worker, now a peddler, Seminole, Oklahoma

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Migratory worker in auto camp. "Them WPAs are keeping us from a living. They oughtn't to do it. It ain't fair in no way. The government lays them off (that is in Work Projects Administration - 1939) and they come in because they're locals and take the jobs away from us that never had no forty-four dollars a month. I came out of Pennsylvania, used to be an oil worker. I'm getting along in years now and I seen lots of presidents and lots of systems. Voted for Roosevelt both times and I don't know of any president that ever leaned toward the laboring man like him, but this system they've got here in the fruit is a rotten system the way they work it." Yakima Valley, Washington

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Women war workers

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection)

Oil worker, Salem, Illinois

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Sugarcane worker, Louisiana

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Mexican carrot worker, Edinburg, Texas

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Migratory worker. Robstown camp, Texas

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Zinc smelter worker. Picher, Oklahoma

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Turpentine worker. DuPont, Georgia

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Steel worker. Midland, Pennsylvania

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Workers on top of a building under construction 

(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing)

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Then, after the Pullman Strike in 1894, a nationwide railway strike, President Grover Cleveland extended an olive branch to unions, and designated Labor Day a federal holiday. But, rather than celebrate the holiday on International Workers' Day on May 1, which has Communist ties and was just days before the anniversary of the Haymarket riot, President Cleveland went with a date designated by McGuire ... or Maguire.

Today, the holiday is synonymous with the start of the school year, and storewide sales and discounts. Ironically, because of those sales, employees at stores like Wal-Mart are forced to not only work on Labor Day, but work extended hours. Adding insult to injury, they're not allowed to unionize.

The history of Labor Day



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