The History of Labor Day

Celebrated on the first Monday of every September, Labor Day honors the contributions and achievements of the American worker. Becoming a federal holiday in 1894, Labor Day originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States during the late 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days, 7-days a week. And this was just to manage a basic living. Also, and despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 worked in mills, factories, and mines earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. Workers of all ages, the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities, and breaks.

As manufacturing work replaced agriculture as the main source of American employment, labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and pressed employers to renegotiate hours and pay. In New York City on September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, when several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Then 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. Two months later, the American Railroad Union led by 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. These events, among many others, brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view.

The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress, however, would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later after the massive unrest involving the Pullman Palace Car Company. In an attempt to repair ties with the American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

More than a century later, the true founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified. While many credit Peter J. McGuire, who co-founded the American Federation of Labor, others have suggested that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday.

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