Holiday History: Labor Day

Pullman Strike of 1894
During the Pullman Strike of 1894, the U.S. cavalry escorted the first meat train leaving the Chicago Stock Yards on July 10, 1894.

Having a picnic this Labor Day? If so, you’re honoring a tradition going all the way back to the first Labor Day celebration.

The first Labor Day parade was in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. “After marching from City Hall to [CG1] Union Square, the workers and their families gathered in Reservoir Park for a picnic, concert and speeches,” according to the Library of Congress.

“Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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For many people, Labor Day means a three-day weekend that is the unofficial end of summer, in the same way, Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer.

While the workers and their families at that first Labor Day would have enjoyed their picnics and celebrations then as we do now, conditions were very different. For starters, none of the workers were taking a paid holiday. Paid holidays were in the distant future for most Americans.

By contrast, the Society for Human Resource Management reported in 2019 that 96% of American employers provide paid holidays to their employees. That means they either get the day off with pay or in the case of someone who is required to work on Labor Day, they will get some other benefit such as compensatory time.

It was also not a three-day weekend for most of the people at that first Labor Day celebration.  The forty-hour work week, overtime pay, and the now traditional five-day work week were all far into the future.

Safety laws and regulations were also rare then. Nearly three decades later, the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in New York City in 1911. It killed 146 garment workers, 123 of them women and girls; two of the girls were only fourteen years old. The factory was located eight stories up and many of those who died jumped to their deaths.

You see, the doors to the stairwells were locked. The factory owners were more concerned about theft and someone taking a break without permission than they were about their employees’ safety.

This tragedy did spur legislation to help protect workers better. Frequently, it took incidents such as these to prompt change.

The vision of the 1882 Labor Day celebrants marching, giving speeches to one another, and then relaxing together with their families may seem idyllic. Unfortunately, that was not the case for employee-owner relations in much of that era.

Today, violence is rare in labor relations issues. That wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, the workers were the instigators. Often, security forces hired by the owners, or police officers being told to enforce the law on behalf of the owners, incited violence.

President Grover Cleveland signed the bill creating Labor Day on June 24, 1894. The bill had languished in the Senate for nearly ten months until the middle of June, then made it through both houses of Congress in just a handful of days.

Why are those dates significant? Many people believe passage of the bill was intended not only to honor working people, it was also to help placate the labor movement at a time when one of the best known incidents in American labor history was escalating. It is known as the Pullman Strike. The Pullman Strike, at a railroad car factory near Chicago, included incidents of violence on both sides, caused tremendous property damage, and led to the deaths of 30 people.

Since the days of the first Labor Day celebration, the Pullman Strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, labor union members and others have worked to improve conditions beyond those already mentioned. Child labor laws, a minimum wage, health benefits, and help for workers injured on the job are among the fruits of their efforts.

The concept of the first Labor Day celebration is generally credited to one of two men from New York. However it happened, the idea of workers celebrating each other and the work itself has been a key part of American society ever since.

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