Labor Day’s dark history

A crowning achievement of the labor movement, Labor Day recognizes the contributions of working people in the United States and Canada. The federal holiday has long been celebrated with picnics and parades, such as this one in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1934. Photo Submitted.

Labor Day was recently celebrated on Monday, September 5. It did not become a federal holiday until the year 1894 and it is much more than a long weekend, a cookout, or a celebration for the end of summer. Labor Day actually stems from a dark period in American history known as the Industrial Revolution. Learn more about the events that led up to the annually celebrated holiday that honors workers and their achievements.

During the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the average American was working 12-hour days, seven days a week just to make ends meet. History.com noted that even children as young as 5 years old would be put to work in mills, factories or mines across the country and only earned a fraction of their adult counterparts.

To make matters worse, people often faced working conditions that were not safe and did not have access to fresh air or proper toilets. These individuals also did not receive breaks during their shift. This treatment prompted the development of labor unions in which individuals rallied and protests the poor conditions in efforts to get their employers to renegotiate wages and hours.

Multiple events would be made part of history, including the first official Labor Day Parade. On September 5, 1882, an estimated 10,000 workers took off work to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, thus making it the first Labor Day Parade. It is also noted that Labor Day was originally titled “workingmen’s holiday.” 

Another event known as the Haymarket Affair would go down in history. “On May 4, 1886 — at a time when most American laborers worked 18 or even 20 hours a day — tens of thousands of workers protested in cities all across the U.S. to demand an eight-hour workday. Police in Chicago attacked both those peaceful protests and a worker planning meeting two days later, randomly beating and shooting at the planning group and killing six. When outraged Chicagoans attended an initially peaceful protest the next evening in Haymarket Square, police advanced on the crowd again. Someone who was never identified detonated a bomb that killed a police officer, leading cops to open fire on protesters and provoke violence that led to the deaths of about a dozen workers and police,” said Nationaltoday.com.

Later in 1894, the Pullman Strike occurred. Nationaltoday.com said, “The strike happened in May in the company town of Pullman, Chicago, a factory location established by luxury railroad car manufacturer the Pullman Company. The inequality of the town was more than apparent. Company owner George Pullman lived in a mansion while most laborers stayed in barracks-style dormitories. When a nationwide depression struck in 1893, Pullman decided to cut costs the way a lot of executives at the time did — by lowering wages by almost 30% while he kept the rent on the dormitories he leased to his workers at pre-depression levels.”

By June of 1894, the American Railroad Union had boycotted the Pullman railway cars which devastated railroad traffic nationwide. To combat the Pullman Strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago which led to riots that resulted in deaths of dozens of workers.

Following this, in an attempt for the relationship to be restored with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day official in the District of Columbia and territories. It wasn’t until June 28, 1894, that President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

There remains some disparity among how the holiday actually began, which Nationaltoday.com summarized, “One version is set in September 1882 with the Knights of Labor, the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations at the time. The Knights in New York City held a public parade featuring various labor organizations on September 5 — with the aid of the fledgling Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York. Subsequently, CLU Secretary Matthew Maguire proposed that a national Labor Day holiday be held on the first Monday of each September to mark this successful public demonstration.

In another version, Labor Day in September was proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a vice president of the American Federation of Labor. In spring 1882, McGuire reportedly proposed a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to the CLU, which would begin with a street parade of organized labor solidarity and end with a picnic fundraiser for local unions. McGuire suggested the first Monday in September as an ideal date for Labor Day because the weather is great at that time of year, and it falls between July 4th and Thanksgiving. Oregon became the first U.S. state to make it an official public holiday. Twenty-nine other states had joined by the time the federal government declared it a federal holiday in 1894.”

Furthermore, according to nationaltoday.com statistics show, “Americans work longer hours than citizens of most other countries — 137 more hours per year than Japan, 260 more per year than the U.K. and 499 more than France. And our productivity is high — 400% higher than it was in 1950, to be exact. Also, it is thought to be the reason we can say TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) as “Labor Day is a time to celebrate the benefits we enjoy at our jobs — including weekends off. The concept of American workers taking days off dates back to 1791, when a group of carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike to demand a shorter workweek (10-hour days, to be exact). It wasn’t until 1836 that workers started demanding eight-hour workdays. So, nine to five doesn’t sound so bad after all.”

So, no matter how you celebrated Labor Day, just remember all the men, women and even children that fought for safe workplaces, fair wages and various other benefits in the workplace today.

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