Here we are at the beginning of September. The long Labor Day Holiday weekend has for many years been considered the end of summer celebration, the return of students to school, and a celebration of the hard work of all employees. We often forget the real meaning of Labor Day when we get wrapped up in picnics, back-to-school sales, and the realization that summer has just about had it.
How did this celebration of labor get started? We have all heard stories of sweatshops that exist even today with laws against them. During the industrial revolution workers were needed, but they weren’t always treated fairly. The average American in the late 1880s worked 12-hour days, usually 7-days a week and there were not many restrictions on the employers. Child labor laws were were only in effect in some states and not always enforced. Children as young as six-years-old were working for much less than than there adult counterparts with not much recourse. Workers began to push for better working conditions which led to strikes. Demonstrations in front of the workplace often led to violence between the workers and employers and the police had to get involved.
The one event that was the spark that ignited the worker’s movement was the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, Illinois. According to History.com “On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot when someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died, including police officers, as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The riot seriously hurt the labor movement. The efforts for an eight hour work day and better working conditions blew up with that bomb.
The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882 in New York City when some 10,000 workers took time off from work to march from City Hall to Union Square. Many states celebrated the first Monday in September as a workingman’s holiday, but Congress didn’t enact legislation to make it official until some twelve years later.
Employees at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago in 1894 went on strike because of the firing of a union representative and wage cuts that management had made. A little more than a month later Eugene V. Debs leader of the American Railroad union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Serious damage was done to railroad traffic and government troops were sent in which caused many riots to break out. More than a dozen workers died in those riots.
Congress passed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law June 28, 1894. There is still some dispute over who actually was the first to suggest a holiday for workers called Labor Day.
After all of these years the debate goes on. One side supports Peter J. McGuire who was co-founder of the American Federation of Labor for suggesting it and the other side says it was Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Union who first proposed the holiday. You’ll notice that Labor Day is not celebrated on September 5th as originally proposed. That’s because the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was signed into law June 28, 1968 making sure that Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Labor Day would always be celebrated on Mondays producing a 3-day weekend.
There you have it. Rather than actually celebrating workers most Americans simply enjoy an extra day off to spend with family and friends by having picnics, going boating, swimming, and other enjoyable activities. Maybe we should all take a moment to thank those who worked so hard all those years ago to give us the benefits that come with the jobs we have now.
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