In the United States and Canada, Labor Day is celebrated every year on the first Monday in September. This year that’s on September 6. Traditionally, this weekend is seen as the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Often, it’s commemorated with parades, political speeches, and labor union activities. For many, it’s a welcomed three-day weekend respite from work, a time of family vacations, neighborhood barbecues and often a start of a new school year.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, the holiday has its roots in the late nineteenth century. This is when “labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity and well-being.” It didn’t start as a federal holiday, however. Back in 1885 and 1886, municipal ordinances were passed which then led to a movement by labor activists to secure state legislation.
Although New York was the initial state to introduce legislation, it was Oregon that passed the first law recognizing Labor Day in February 1887. Four more states quickly followed that year. They were Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Over the next few years more states joined the movement to recognize Labor Day. By 1890, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Nebraska had done so. Twenty-three more states pass laws recognizing Labor Day by 1894. Congress then passed an act marking Labor Day as a legal holiday on June 28, 1894.
The Labor movement which led to this holiday was born of violence and protest. During the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, many Americans were working 12-hour days, seven days a week just to afford a basic living. Young children were working in factories, mines, and mills to contribute to their families but made a fraction of what adults made. Many folks but especially recent immigrants and the poor experienced unsafe working conditions. This included unsanitary facilities, lack of access to fresh air and few breaks during the workday.
This led to the formation of labor unions. They became vocal and organized strikes and rallies protesting these poor conditions and demanding employers renegotiate working hours and pay. According to the history.com website, “Many of these events turned violent… including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed.” Out of these conflicts a tradition was born. “On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. The actual founder of Labor Day remains in dispute. Some credit Peter J. McGuire who was the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Others put forth that it was Matthew Maquire who was a secretary with the Central Labor Union that first proposed the holiday.
What’s not in dispute is the event that led to the creation of this holiday. That was the strike by employees at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. On May 11, 1894, they “went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.” On June 26, the American Railroad Union under Eugene V. Debs called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. This in turned crippled “railroad traffic nationwide.” The ‘federal government dispatched troops to Chicago” to break up this strike. Riots occurred and more than a dozen workers died. During this massive unrest, President Grover Cleveland and Congress attempted to “repair ties with American workers.” Thus, Labor Day became a legal holiday in all states and the District of Columbia.
So, this Labor Day weekend, as we take advantage of the many sales, enjoy the warm weather, and anticipate the coming fall, as we gather with friends and neighbors for a variety of events; hopefully we’ll keep in mind that Labor Day is meant to be a celebration of workers and their achievements.