The history of Labor Day and how it is observed in Illinois

Labor Day officially became a federal holiday in 1894, and it is traditionally observed on the first Monday in September. While Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and was created by the federal labor movement, it also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans and includes a three-day weekend celebrated with parties, parades, and athletic events. 

In the late 1800s, many Americans were working 12 hours a day, seven days per week and often in low paying and physically demanding jobs. Young children were working in farms, factories and mines, with often unsafe conditions. With workers and labor unions pushing back against these working conditions, organized strikes and rallies were held and those became more prominent and vocal. 

As labor activists continued their push for a federal holiday to recognize hard-working Americans, the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in September 1882. Over 10,000 people of many working trades marched in an orderly and pleasant manner, and some risked their jobs by participating in this one-day strike. Many held signs calling for ‘less work and more pay,’ including asking for eight-hour workdays and discontinuing the use of convict labor.  September 5, 1882, is recognized as the first Labor Day holiday. 

More states and municipalities continued to recognize Labor Day in the next 10-plus years, but the federal government did not until a widespread railroad strike and boycott disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest in the summer of 1894. The Pullman Strike involved the Pullman Palace Car Company, located in the Chicago area, lowering its workers’ wages by 25 percent. When workers complained, owner George Pullman had them fired. In response, an American Railway Union strike organized by Eugene V. Debs brought freight and passenger traffic to a halt around Chicago and crippled the economy across the nation.  Amidst the crisis, on June 28 President Grover Cleveland and Congress officially created Labor Day as a national holiday to ease tensions. The Pullman Strike lasted from May 11 to July 20, 1894. 

A bombing incident at a union rally on May 4, 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square led to violence that killed 11 people, including seven police officers. This led to May 1 becoming recognized as International Workers Day by many. There was some debate as to whether Labor Day should be celebrated in May or September, with President Cleveland choosing September as the less inflammatory alternative. Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has celebrated Loyalty Day and Law Day on May 1, but neither are legal public holidays. 

Historians debate the founder of the idea of a Labor Day holiday, with Central Labor Union of New York Secretary Matthew Maguire and American Federation of Labor Vice President Peter J. McGuire both recognized. 

Labor Day represents several other unofficial traditions in society, including the unofficial end of summer.  Previous eras claimed it is a fashion ‘faux pas’ to wear white after Labor Day, and the holiday is also considered the unofficial end of hot dog season. The Labor Day holiday’s roots focused on celebrations with parades in urban areas, and today the holiday honors organized labor with fewer parades and more community activities and family celebrations. 

Communities in Illinois host a number of robust festivals and celebrations on Labor Day weekend, including the Chicago Jazz Festival, Great American Lobster Fest, Summer Sunset Festival, and The Last Fling in the Chicagoland area. Other areas of the state also celebrate Labor Day, with the Du Quoin State Fair, Peoria Blues and Heritage Festival, Kewanee Hog Days, Nauvoo Grape Festival, Rock Island Grand Prix, Manito Popcorn Festival, Springfield Oyster and Beer Festival, Harley-Davidson Springfield Mile, and Arthur Amish Country Cheese Festival all included.