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date: 04 March 2021

Labor Day and the American Working Classlocked

  • Donna T. Haverty-StackeDonna T. Haverty-StackeHunter College, Department of History

Summary

The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It, and the annual holiday demonstrations that followed in that decade and the next, resulted from the growth of the modern organized labor movement that took place in the context of the second industrial revolution. These first Labor Day celebrations also became part of the then ongoing ideological and tactical divisions within that movement. By the early 1900s, workers’ desire to enjoy the fruits of their labor by participating in popular leisure pursuits came to characterize the day. But union leaders, who considered such leisure pursuits a distraction from displays of union solidarity, continued to encourage the organization of parades. With the protections afforded to organized labor by the New Deal, and with the gains made during and after World War II (particularly among unionized white, male, industrial laborers), Labor Day parades declined further after 1945 as workers enjoyed access to mass cultural pursuits, increasingly in suburban settings. This decline was indicative of a broader loss of union movement culture that had served to build solidarity within unions, display working-class militancy to employers, and communicate the legitimacy of organized labor to the American public. From time to time since the late 1970s unions have attempted to reclaim the power of Labor Day to make concerted demands through their display of workers’ united power; but, for most Americans the holiday has become part of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping or leisure that marks the end of the summer season.

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