While historians still debate who first proposed a labor day holiday, there is no question as to where the first Labor Day celebration took place. Like most other important events, it happened right here in New York City.
Labor Day Parade, 1960. John Albok Photograph Collection, PR 1, Box 2, Folder 20.
On September 5, 1882, a parade organized by the city’s Central Labor Union marched up Broadway, past a reviewing stand in Union Square, and continued along 5th Avenue to its termination point at Reservoir (now Bryant) Park.
“Candy Man,” circa 1850. Subject File, PR 68, Box 6, Folder: Occupations.
The Central Labor Union was formed in November, 1881, to coordinate the activities of labor unions throughout the New York City area. Its guiding principle was that “the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves as no other class has any interest in improving their conditions.”
Steel worker drilling beams, circa 1930’s. Irving Browning Collection, PR 009, Box 3, Folder 23.
To this end, in 1882 the CLU adopted a resolution “that the 5th of September (Tuesday) be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen of this city and all workingmen be invited to be present.”
Production workers, New York Navy Yard Ordnance Machine Shop, 1945. WWII Photograph Collection, Box 2, Folder 52.
The parade was a great success, with an estimated turnout of between 20,0000 to 25,000. As the New York Sun reported the following day, “The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”
Construction workers demolishing Sixth Avenue elevated railway, circa 1939. Irving Browning, PR 009, Box 2, Folder 20.
Although not originally envisioned as an annual event, the enthusiasm generated by the first parade led the CLU to organize another parade on its anniversary date, September 5, 1883 (a Wednesday). In 1884, the CLU declared the first Monday in September to be an annual holiday in honor of wage workers.
Calculating women in the NYC Department of Finance, circa 1950’s. Subject File, PR 68, Box 10, Folder: Occupations.
In 1885, the New York State Legislature introduced a bill to make Labor Day an official holiday, but it wasn’t enacted until May 6, 1887 — several months after Oregon became the first state to actually pass a law (on February 21, 1887) making Labor Day a holiday.
Ticket-taker, Times Square, circa 1970. Kenneth Siegel Photograph Collection, PR 298, Box 1, Folder 3.
Other states soon followed suit, but it took almost another decade — and a tragic political crisis — to make Labor Day a national holiday. In 1894, after federal troops were called in to end the Pullman Strike in Chicago, killing a number of strikers, Congress rushed to pass a bill designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Ironically, it was President Grover Cleveland — the man responsible for pitting the U.S. Army against the strikers — who, in a conciliatory gesture to labor, signed the bill into law.
Restaurant worker, 1999. Edwin Martin Photograph Collection, PR 96, Box 1, Folder 6.
The real credit for Labor Day, though, should go to the working people it celebrates. New York workers, past and present, we salute you!