Looking for the earliest references to "Labor Day" in the New York Times, I came across some interesting material. This comes from early September, 1887, 10 months after the 1886 NYC Mayoral election in which a coalition of labor groups asked Henry George to run as their candidate.
(An August 31, 2004 NYT article on the origins of Labor Day by Edward T. O'Donnell takes it back to September, 1882. Evidently the NYT of the day chose to take no note until after the Legislature had passed the bill establishing Labor Day. Nor does an archive search on "central labor union" provide as early a reference as the O'Donnell does; NYT's earliest is 9/15/1884.)
I'm still curious about how the first Monday in September was chosen. Was it only a coincidence that Henry George's birthday was September 2?
Labor Day and Idle Saturday
The last Legislature did two very foolish things when it established the first Monday of September as a holiday to be known as "Labor Day," and when it enacted that every Saturday afternoon should be a half holiday. Gov. Hill has more than the usual executive share of responsibility for the former of these performances. He recommended the measure beforehand because he thought that by pleasing "Labor" he would be playing a clever demagogue's trick, and the Legislature adopted the suggestion because its members were afraid of being outwitted by the Governor in their competition for the Labor vote. As a matter of fact, we have seen no evidence that the real workingmen demanded Labor Day. Most workmen can take a day off now and then at their own cost and take it when they want it, which they are not sure of doing if they take it on a fixed day. If they had any notion of getting Labor Day at the boss's expense that notion will be effectually dispelled. They will lose a day's work and forfeit a day's wages as on any other public holiday. The only people who are benefited by Labor Day are the people who are paid by the week or the month -- clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, and so forth, and these do not count as "labor" at all in the estimation of the Knights.
It is silly to set apart a day on which no labor is to be done as Labor Day. It may also be mischievous. The use of the day which is suggested by its title is to organize demonstrations of Labor, by Labor, and for Labor. Now these demonstrations, as everybody knows, are apt to be demonstrations of the discontent which manual laborers, as well as laborers of other kinds, and idlers, and indeed all men whatsoever, feel about their lot, and attempts to hold somebody other than the discontented persons themselves to account for the unhappiness of their fates. With Labor this attempt takes the form of arraigning "Capital," or, concretely, of finding fault with the bosses. If, therefore, Labor Day is to be observed in any specific and distinguishing manner it will be used as a day on which one class of the community assembles to hear another class blackguarded, a suspension of labor being enjoined upon all classes for this purpose, and the whole performance going on under the express sanction of the State. To establish a holiday for this purpose is to give public authority to an un-American, undemocratic, and senseless procedure.
We have said that the only people really benefited from their own point of view by Labor Day are the men employed by the month as assistants in mercantile houses. They get their day off without any diminution of their pay. It is also for their express and exclusive benefit that the Saturday halfholiday has been established. This does "Labor" in the political sense no good whatever. If a laborer can afford to lose half a day's wages once a week he could in almost all callings arrange to do so without losing his place. If he cannot afford that loss it is a great piece of cruelty, in intention at least, for the law-making power to enact a statute which, if it were effectual, would compel him to do so. In cities, during the heat of Summer a kindly and sensible custom has grown up in many kinds of business of shutting up shop at noon on Saturday. It was very well to recognize and sanction this custom, and to encourage its extension, by making Saturday afternoon in July and August half holidays. There was no doubt a certain risk in doing this for men engaged in business that required constant communication with the banks. But the "heated term" coincides with the dullest season of such business, and the risk was worth taking. That is a very different thing from making fifty-two half holidays in the courts of the year during seasons when there is no pretext of necessity or use in idleness. If the law could be enforced it would cut down by one-twelfth the amount of work done in the State of New-York. That is a handicap which no industrial community in the world could successfully carry. Of course the law cannot be enforced. The laborers who are their own employers, including mechanics as well as farmers, will pay no attention to it whatever. Mechanics who work for other men will feel no more inclined to forfeit their wages on Saturday afternoons than on any other afternoons. Tradesmen cannot afford, now that the busy season is reopening, to lose their Saturday's trade, and even their clerks will not be benefited by the nominal half holiday if the disregard of the statute is so general as it now seems likely to be. The banks are bound by the law, and their clerks, with the clerks in public offices, will be able to spend Saturday afternoon in idleness. For this boon a new and perilous element is to be reckoned with in all credits and a source of disturbance to be introduced into business of all kinds.
Evidently this is not worth while. The judgment of all business men is that a weekly half holiday on which no debts are collectible, in addition to Sunday and adjoining it, is injurious and dangerous. Both the holiday laws should be repealed, the "Labor Day" law because it established a general holiday for the use of a special class, and the Saturday half holiday law because, except during the Summer months, the half holiday it establishes does more mischief than good.