The nation’s first Labor Day was celebrated 141 years ago on September 5, 1882, with a parade organized by New York City’s recently formed Central Labor Union. It was a milestone event as America's Industrial Revolution was reaching full speed and working people were beginning to push for a greater say in their pay and working conditions.
The world has changed dramatically since then, of course. The factories and mills that were cutting-edge in the 19th century were transformed by 20th century manufacturing methods such as Henry Ford's assembly lines. They were transformed yet again by a succession of inventions and technological breakthroughs—think of the robots run by just a handful of highly skilled operators that dominate most manufacturing floors today. White-and pink-collar workers have seen their jobs changed—or eliminated—by computers and new technologies, too.
The development of the global economy and the outsourcing of hundreds of thousands of jobs to low-wage countries like China has had an equally profound impact on our nation's labor force, not to mention our politics.
Through it all, however, Americans have continued to be the most resourceful, resilient and enterprising people on Earth, and the U.S. labor force continues to set the international standard for productivity. It is an achievement which this—and every—Labor Day celebrates.
Here are some of the steps along the way from that first parade in 1882 to the current national observance:
• In February 1887, Oregon became the first state to declare an official Labor Day holiday.
• By 1890, seven more states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Colorado—had created their own holidays honoring working people.
• The momentum gathered steam, and within the next four years the number of states with Labor Days had grown to 31.
• The final step came on June 28, 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September a national holiday.
So, however you celebrate this day, take a moment to think about our country’s extraordinary history and the vital role that American labor has always played—and continues to play. Give thanks to those dedicated men and women, the American workers. And have a great Labor Day.
Robert L. Dilenschneider is the Founder and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, an international communications firm that provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions, to crisis communications, to marketing, government affairs and foreign media.