To many, Labor Day marks the end of summer as millions of people across the country flock outside for one last sun-filled weekend. We leave our 9-to-5 jobs for some much-deserved rest and relaxation before the end of the season, but how many of us actually know why we celebrate the first Monday of September every year? Labor Day represents the hard work of Americans and their achievements, but what are we really celebrating?
If it weren’t for the struggle that led up to the holiday, instead of working those long, arduous 8-hour days that we do now, we would be working even longer, more arduous, 12-hour days. It started with the Industrial Revolution, which modernized the workplace during the 19th century. People enjoyed steady employment, but their rights were compromised due to long workdays and low pay. In the US, the average American worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week in order to earn a decent salary. Mills, factories, and mines employed children as young as 5 or 6 years old, and people of all ages often faced extremely hazardous working conditions.
Labor groups in the US began protecting workers’ rights by unionizing. They started organizing strikes and rallies to protest the poor working conditions and fought for shorter hours and increased pay. In Canada, unions were illegal until 1872, when thousands of laborers in Ottawa marched to Prime Minister John Macdonald’s home. The existing anti-union law was struck down that year and the march became an annual Canadian tradition. In 1882, Peter J. McGuire went to Toronto to attend the march and was so impressed that he suggested to New York City’s Central Labor Union that Americans do the same. He chose September 5 because it filled the long void between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, a machinist from Patterson, NJ, Matthew Maguire, also proposed a similar labor celebration, and on September 5, 1882, the first labor march took place from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. People gathered in Reservoir Park, where they had picnics and concerts, and gave speeches rallying for an 8-hour work day. Two years later, the parade was moved to the first Monday in September and people in all US cities were encouraged to march in them. Oregon became the first state to legalize the holiday in 1887 and other states soon followed.
It took the Pullman Strike of 1894 to put Labor Day on the national calendar. Pullman, IL was a company town founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeper car company. The town was built to be a workers’ community. It was organized with row houses for the assembly and craft workers, Victorians for the managers, and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visitors, suppliers, and salesman would stay while in town. Residents in the town all worked for the railroad company, with their paychecks drawn from Pullman’s bank and their rent deducted automatically from their paychecks. The town operated this way smoothly for more than a decade.
However, in 1893, a nationwide economic depression caused a decline in orders for railroad sleeper cars and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who were not laid off received wage cuts, but rents in Pullman stayed the same. As a result, employees went on strike, demanding lower rents and higher pay. Railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars and the strike quickly became a national issue. People rioted and mobs of non-union workers joined the protest. In response, President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break it up, resulting in 2 men being killed when US deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago. On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared finished and Pullman employees signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. In an attempt to appease the nation’s workers and as a last chance to persuade his reelection (he was not reelected), Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday.
The holiday became a day to rally workers for safer conditions, fair pay, and benefits, but by the second half of the 20th century, Labor Day’s true nature had been largely forgotten.
- History of Labor Day. United States Department of Labor website. http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm.
- Labor Day. The History Channel website. http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day.
- The origins of Labor Day. PBS website. September 2, 2001. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/business-july-dec01-labor_day_9-2.