What does Labor Day stand for?

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To many people, Labor Day means a three-day weekend. Picnics, barbecues, a farewell to summer -- and one last hurrah before the new school year gets underway in earnest.

But Labor Day, which always takes place on the first Monday in September, was created to honor the contributions of the nation's working men and women and their achievements. Here's how the U.S. Labor Department describes the holiday: "It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country."

Photos: Los Angeles labor movement throughout history

Perhaps not surprisingly, the holiday is the creation of the labor movement, which wanted a holiday to honor workers -- and highlight the need for labor reform laws.

The Central Labor Union held the first Labor Day celebration in 1882 in New York City. The AFL-CIO, which represents about 12.2 million members, says that first holiday was marked by a march to demand an eight-hour workday and other labor law reforms. About 20,000 workers made their way up Broadway carrying signs that read “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” (The AFL-CIO site offers a chronological look at such events via a timeline.)

Other unions followed suit and by 1894, the holiday had been adopted by 23 states. Then came that year's deadly Pullman strike, in which government forces shot and killed several striking railroad workers in Illinois. It gave birth to the modern labor movement and added new urgency to the formation of a holiday that honors it.

"In what most historians call an election year attempt to appease workers after the federal crackdown on the Pullman strike, shortly after the strike was broken, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making the first Monday in September Labor Day and a federal holiday," according to the AFL-CIO, which also notes that the gambit did not work: "Cleveland lost the election."

This year, the holiday comes on the heels of a bruising union showdown in Wisconsin, in which Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers moved to curb public employees' collective bargaining rights and have them pay more for benefits. Its political ramifications were felt far beyond that state's borders, with some seeing the outcome as a sign that public unions can now be challenged to their core.

The hallmarks of that very first Labor Day -- a rousing parade and rousing political speeches -- continue: The holiday is often used as the unofficial start of the general election campaign, and today is no exception. President Obama and the field of Republicans who want to oust him have plans to address voters on this Labor Day.

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-- Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch

Photo: People line the street to watch Wilmington's 23rd annual Labor Day march in 2002. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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