DemDaily: Labor’s Day

August 31, 2023

Next Monday, September 4, is Labor Day -- signaling for many the unofficial end of summer, the last trip to the beach, the beginning of the school year, the start of the second session of the 118th Congress.

It is important to be reminded, however, that the federal holiday is a tribe to the American labor movement and the achievements of American workers.

The concept of "Labor Day" was first promoted in 1882 by New York Central Labor Union Secretary Matthew Maguire, the Secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Patterson, New Jersey, and American Federation of Labor co-founder and General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Peter McGuire -- to honor "the laboring classes, who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."

It was the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, to eke out a basic living. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which were first organized in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began coordinating strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers organized by the Knights of Labor took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding what became to be known as the first Labor Day parade in US history.

The idea of a "workingmen's holiday," celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing Labor Day.

In the interim, a series of violent clashes between labor and police drew more attention to labor conditions, including the Haymarket Riot on May 1, 1886, when thousands of workers in Chicago took to the streets to demand an eight-hour workday. On May 4, a bomb was set off by an unknown perpetrator, killing seven police officers and eight civilians.

The event later inspired a call for an international holiday honoring workers' rights on the first of May.

On "May Day" in 1894, panic around an economic depression in the US sparked riots in Cleveland, Ohio among the unemployed who condemned city leaders for their ineffective relief measures.

Then, in a watershed moment in labor history, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike on May 11, 1894, to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.

On June 26, in solidarity, American Railroad Union President Eugene Debs called for a nationwide boycott of Pullman railway cars. By June 30, 125,000 workers on 29 railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide.

To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of 30 civilians, the severe injury of dozens and the burning of much of Chicago's South Side.

In an attempt to repair ties with American workers in the wake of the massive unrest, President Grover Cleveland urged Congress to pass an act making Labor Day a legal federal holiday -- which was signed into law June 28, 1894.

Labor Day is a testament to the hard-fought victories -- and ongoing struggles -- of the American labor movement, and an occasion to celebrate the rights secured for us all.

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Sources: Dept of Labor, Britannica, History, Chicagology, PBS

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