In other parts the world, this Monday may be nothing more than September first. But, for those of us in the U.S., it’s Labor Day! For a lot of us, that means a three-day weekend, sales at the mall, and celebratory activities of one kind or another. Labor Day is also marked as the official last holiday of summer.
Have you ever wondered, though, just why we celebrate Labor Day? Unlike most holidays, there’s nothing of religious significance about the first Monday in September, so why do some folks get the day off? The answer to that question takes us back over a hundred years.
It was the early 1880s, and the Industrial Revolution in the United States was in full swing. Most workers toiled under dismal conditions 12 or more hours a day, 7 days a week, and barely made enough money to survive. Even worse, it wasn’t just adults who were subjected to this lifestyle. Children, as soon as they were old enough to do some kind of job in a factory, mine, mill, or wherever else, often worked just as long as the adults did, but for a small fraction of the pay. During this period, those as young as 5 or 6 were put to work, performing difficult, often dangerous jobs under even more dangerous conditions.
It was during this period that labor unions, which had been around for about a century, began to get more vocal about the tough conditions and insufficient wages that were the status quo for workers all over the country. Unions began to organize strikes, protests, and rallies in an effort to get the voice of the workers heard and to force business owners to renegotiate hours, pay, and workplace conditions. With the beleaguered workers already a hairsbreadth from exhaustion and starvation, many of these protests and rallies turned violent.
The very first Labor Day parade in U.S. history was actually the result of one of these protests. In New York City, 10,000 workers took the day off on September 5, 1882 and marched from City Hall to Union Square. In reverence to this massive protest, the first Monday in September began to be regarded as a labor holiday, with several industrial states passing legislation marking it as such.
It wasn’t until 12 years later that the Federal Government would make it a national holiday after a massive railroad dispute. In May of 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage disputes and the firing of union representatives from the company. The American Railroad Union, in solidarity with the workers in Chicago, took the protest one step further by boycotting all of the railroad cars manufactured by Pullman.
This act crippled the nation’s railroad system and it took deploying the U.S. Army to Chicago to break up the strike. Naturally, the act of deploying soldiers to pacify a bunch of angry protesters ended in disaster, with massive riots and arrests that actually cost some workers their lives. As a peacemaking gesture after the riots ended, Congress passed legislation declaring the first Monday in September a legal holiday in Washington D.C. and its territories. As such, Labor Day was officially born. Have a safe and happy one!