Labor Day: how and why is it celebrated in the US?

Monday marks the annual Labor Day holiday in the US – but what exactly are they celebrating?

Labor Day marching band
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Monday the US will celebrate Labor Day, as it does on the first Monday in September every year. But what does the holiday commemorate – and how is it marked?

What is Labor Day?

Labor Day, as the spelling suggests, is the US version of an internationally recognised holiday, Labour Day. It is celebrated on the first Monday in September in the US and in Canada. Many other countries mark the day on May 1, although there is no official date set in the UK.

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Why is it celebrated?

Labor Day marks the contribution of workers and the labour movement, says the United States Department of Labour. It was legally made a holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland after several states had already introduced their own versions. It originated during one of American labour history's most "dismal chapters", when the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to earn a basic living and children as young as five or six toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, explains the History Channel's website. Labour unions grew more prominent, with strikes and rallies in protest at the poor working conditions. The very first Labor Day parade was held on 5 September 1882 in New York City, where 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square.

How do Americans mark Labor Day now?

Speeches and parades are still held across the US, but for many it is seen as a day off to spend with family.

Why early September?

Most countries that mark Labour Day do so on May 1, a date chosen by a group of socialist and labour parties meeting in Paris in 1899. They wanted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket riot or massacre, depending on your political views) happened on 4 May 1886 when a demonstration in support of workers turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. It is said that President Cleveland chose early September for America's Labor Day specifically to avoid commemorating this controversial event.

Is the holiday still meaningful?

According to People's World, the "direct descendant" of the former newspaper the Daily Worker, Labor Day is increasingly "being dismissed by the media as another sales day gimmick or excuse for shopping". Many say Labor Day has come to mark the end of summer or just a Monday off work. It is also central to the longstanding fashion adage that you shouldn't wear white after Labor Day.

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