Origins of Labor Day

On March 25, 1911 as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned, a young social worker who was in Washington Square looking on in horror as the seamstresses jumped to their deaths.  That young social worker was Frances Perkins.    It was because of this event that she left her office as head of the New York Consumers League and become the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York.

When you walk into the Department of Labor’s building in Washington DC you are greeted by a statute of Frances Perkins.  In fact, the building is named for her.  Frances Perkins was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.  In this role, she had an unenviable challenge: she had to be as capable, as fearless, as tactful, as politically astute as the other Washington politicians, in order to make it possible for other women to be accepted into the halls of power after her.

While famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.

Marking the end of the summer vacation season and return to school, Labor Day, is celebrated on the first Monday in September, as a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. some 10,000 workers assembled and marched from City Hall, past reviewing stands in Union Square, and then uptown to 42nd Street.  The workers and their families gathered for a picnic, concern and speeches.  It was organized by the Central Labor Union, an umbrella group made up of representatives from many local unions.

Debate continues to this day as to who originated the idea of a workers' holiday, but it definitely emerged from the ranks of organized labor at a time when they wanted to demonstrate the strength of their burgeoning movement and inspire improvements in their working conditions.

By 1884 similar organizations in other cities followed the example of New York and celebrated a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country. By 1894, 237 states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

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