When Labor Day comes around each year, most people are saddened because it signifies the end of summer vacation. We do our best to send summer off with a bang with BBQ’s, parties, long weekends at the beach, parades and fireworks. But do we ever think about the history behind or the significance of this holiday? It certainly did not start out as a party!
In the late 19th century, there was a labor movement initiated by labor unions in order to protect the well-being, safety and rites of American workers. During the Industrial Revolution in the United States, people worked very long hours, seven days per week just to earn a basic living. They endured severely unsafe working conditions, filthy facilities, not enough access to fresh air and little to no breaks during their long workday. Very young children were employed in factories and mines across the country and earning even less than the adults (2).
The labor unions began to organize strikes and rallies to protest these poor conditions in order to implore employers to provide shorter workdays and increase salaries. Unfortunately, many of these protests turned violent resulting in deaths. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago has gone down in history as the most infamous of labor union protests.
Another event took place in New York City on September 5, 1882, where 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square. The march was organized by the Central Labor Union. This was the first Labor Day parade and holiday celebrated in U.S. History. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday (1).
Many states throughout the country passed legislation recognizing the first Monday in September as a “workingmen’s holiday (2)”. However, Congress would not legalize it as a federal holiday until twelve years later. Unfortunately, it took another violent wave of riots resulting in many lives lost. Finally, in 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed into law and Labor Day would be a national holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September.
As you celebrate the end of summer at your parades and BBQ’s, just take a minute to think of those who fought hard and of those who sacrificed their lives in order to bring fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions to today’s workforce. “This holiday is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American Workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions of workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. (1)” This year, on September 2, 2019, we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of this national holiday.
- History of Labor Day, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history
- History.com Editors, History.com Updated: August 15, 2019, Original: April 13, 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day-1