by Anne Batty
He blessed the seventh day and set it apart
as a special day because He stopped working …
paraphrase Genesis 2:3
For most, Labor Day means a day off work, a day for parades, barbecues, fireworks displays and last minute vacations. For children and young adults it represents the end of summer and the start of the back-to-school season. But what most Americans don’t know is that this holiday originated during one of history’s most dismal chapters.
The History of Labor Day
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average
American worked 12-14 hour days, seven days a week in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as five toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country. People of all ages, particularly immigrants and the very poor, faced unsafe working conditions with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and work breaks.
As manufacturing continued supplanting agriculture as the means for American employment, labor unions - which first appeared in the late 18th century - grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and low pay, compelling employers to renegotiate employment contracts. And during this period many of these events turned violent; like the infamous Haymarket Riot in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed.
In opposition to this violence, on September 5, 1882, ten-thousand workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City; peacefully protesting poor working conditions. Thus the first Labor Day celebration in U.S. history was born.
From that parade, the idea of a workingmen’s holiday to be celebrated on the first Monday in September soon caught on, and many states passed legislation in recognition of the day. However, Congress did not federally legalize the holiday until 12 years later when a watershed moment in American labor history brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view.
On May 11, 1894 employees of the Pullman Palace Car company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26 the American Railroad Union led by labor organizer, Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. And in the wake of this massive unrest, and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
A Nationwide Holiday
Continuing its celebration on the first Monday in September, Labor Day is one of the 10 federal holidays honored in the U.S. today. As a nationwide holiday, the form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day originally took was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday as follows … “a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.” This pattern became the official celebration of the day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. And still later, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
The establishment of state and federal laws protecting workers has improved the working men’s conditions to such a degree that the focus of the Labor Day holiday and its celebrations has changed. While many across America still turn out to hear Labor Day speeches and attend parades, the original purpose of the holiday is falling away. Rather than a day focused on honoring the American worker with parades and speeches, the emphasis is shifting to the enjoyment of a day free from work, a chance to catch up on chores, visit amusements, or to celebrate life with family and friends. Today it has become the last hurrah of summer, a time for vacationing and a time to enjoy a respite from the responsibilities of life.
Editor Anne Batty’s father was a lawyer who worked as a liaison between union members and the Southern Pacific Railroad to create better working conditions for the laborers employed there.