When we pause to celebrate the unofficial end of summer this weekend with parades, long weekends and sales, it’s easy to forget how controversial the holiday was when it first started. Back then, it was a day to honor laborers. "They were pushing for very specific improvements in their working conditions," says Freeman. Before the union movement grew, workers were often forced to work long hours, in dangerous environments and without any legal protections. And even when unions were formed, they were often small and balkanized. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union was to bring them together so they could be powerful. The group's founders wanted to create a national event that would be an opportunity for different trades to meet and discuss their common interests.
There are several competing theories about who first proposed a holiday for workers, but Freeman suggests the idea likely came from Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, secretary of the New York Central Labor Union. They envisioned a street parade and picnic that would "show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade unions."
It was important to the organizers to keep it separate from patriotism, because they didn't want the celebration to be hijacked by the anti-immigration and anti-socialist rhetoric of the time. But the political climate changed in 1894, after violence during the Pullman Railroad strike led President Grover Cleveland to send in the military. Congress passed a bill making the first Monday in September a federal holiday and the rest of the states followed suit.