First U.S. Labor Day Parade 

U.S. #1082 pictures part of a 17 by 51 foot mural.

On September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day parade in the United States was held in New York City.

The first Monday in September marks the unofficial end of summer, but the Labor Day holiday was created to mean much more. Its roots can be traced to the Industrial Revolution, when Americans worked long hours for low wages. Labor unions grew at the end of the 19th century, as workers organized to improve working conditions. It was these unions that began a yearly tribute to the contributions of U.S. employees.

Two men are often credited as having the idea for the first Labor Day celebration. One was Paterson, New Jersey, machinist Matthew Maguire. As secretary of the local branch of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union, he helped organize the Central Labor Union of New York. He became that organization’s secretary as well. In this capacity, he sent out invitations to other local unions to join in a parade scheduled for Tuesday September 5, 1882. Other accounts credit Peter J. McGuire, of the American Federation of Labor for submitting the first proposal in May 1882 after attending the annual labour festival in Toronto, Canada.

U.S. #1082 FDC – Labor Day First Day Cover.

When the day arrived, about 10,000 people participated in the parade, many of which gave up a day’s wages to be there. Workers marched from City Hall to Union Square, and then enjoyed picnics, a concert and speeches in Reservoir Park. According to the organizers, the parade showed the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” in the area. The celebrations continued with recreational activities for the workers and their families.

U.S. #1831 honors the American labor movement.

In the following years, many states passed legislation making Labor Day an official holiday. In 1887, New Jersey became one of the first five states to pass such a law. Following the deaths of striking employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company at the hands of Federal troops, the U.S. Congress rushed through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. In the hopes of repairing relations between American workers and the government, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28, 1894, designating the first Monday in September as a federal holiday called Labor Day.

Though the focus of the holiday may have changed over the last century, Labor Day still offers American workers a chance to relax and reminds U.S. citizens of the contributions made to this country by tradesmen and laborers.

U.S. #1831 FDC pictures George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, who served from 1955-79.

The Labor Day Stamp and the AFL-CIO

The 1956 Labor Day stamp features a design from the mosaic mural at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Artist Lumen Winter designed the mural, called “Labor is Life.” The First Day of Issue ceremony was, for the first time, preceded by a dedication ceremony – both of which took place in the White House Rose Garden.

U.S. #4801 – The 2013 Made in America sheet paid tribute to early 20th century laborers.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest related group of labor unions in the United States. Samuel Gompers founded it. Gompers joined the Cigar makers’ Union when he was 14 years old and eventually became the local president. In this position, he began programs to pay benefits for out-of-work or sick members. He promoted unionization of cigar makers, stating, “One of the main objects of the organization is the elevation of the lowest paid worker to the standard of the highest…”

U.S. #988 was issued for Samuel Gompers’ 100th birthday.

In 1886, delegates representing a number of crafts met in Columbus, Ohio, and founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was elected president and was reelected at each annual convention, except one, until his death. The group’s main goals were increasing workers’ wages, shortening the workday, and improving working conditions. In the 1930s, several member unions broke away and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The two groups competed for members in what was sometimes a bitter rivalry, until they again merged in 1955.

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  1. Thanks for the article, Mystic! As a lifetime union member, we need to strengthen the power of unions especially in this day and age. Since the 1880’s unions have greatly improved the lives of working Americans and strengthening the middle class. Democracy is not possible without a strong middle class!

  2. We workers hope that this day and this stamps reminds the 1% ers where all that money comes from. When I was a kid, men would rip open their shirts at bars just to show the unionl label. My father would come home with bloody knucles after fighting management thugs at union busting events. These benefits were hard fought for by really patriotic Americans. Somewhere the young people today lost their trust in this movement [ thanks Jimmie]. They should revisit the rights of workers and understand the deplorable conditions these brave men reversed.

  3. Don’t blame Jimmie. His former union still exists. As a former member of United Steel Workers we appreciated the raises in cost of living increases, the workload decreases until we priced ourselves out of business. In the process our elected shop stewards and elected officers all acquired Cadillacs. I recall one exception who completed his term and did not rerun, realizing where things were headed. The unions came in as a necessity to working humanity and opposed a greedy breed of management and ownership. When the union power corrupted, it corrupted absolutely. When was the last time you met someone who worked for Bethlehem Steel as my mother did, Republic Steel as my grandfather, my father and I did? We all lost our pensions as the companies went down. There is a happy medium in there somewhere but America lost its industry in the process of not looking for it. What would Labor Day without a labor force.

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