Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated during one of American labor historyБs most dismal chapters. In the late 1800s, at the height of the
in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterpartsБ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several policemen and workers were killed. Others gave rise to longstanding traditions: On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U. S. history. The idea of a БworkingmenБs holiday,Б celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later, when a watershed moment in American labor history brought workersБ rights squarely into the publicБs 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, 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. 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. More than a century later, the true founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified. Many credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, while others have suggested that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday. Labor Day is still celebrated in cities and towns across the United States with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays and other public gatherings. For many Americans, particularly children and young adults, it represents the end of the summer and the start of the back-to-school season. Nowadays, many think of the holiday in the U. S. , which falls on the first Monday in September, as a day for cookouts or. But its origins date back to two gatherings of another, more politically motivated sort. One was a featuring of a parade of unions and accompanying picnic, which took place on Sept. 5, 1882, in a New York City park. That gathering is thought to have attracted as many as 10,000 marchers, Linda Stinson, a former Department of Labor historian. They listened to speeches in support of workers rights, and in lighthearted activities more in the spirit of what goes on today people drank beer, danced and set off fireworks.
The other event was a darker one. On May 11, 1894, in a company town outside Chicago, employees of the railway sleeping car mastermind George Pullman went on strike when their wages didn t go up after the economy tanked. In a show of solidarity, the American Railway Union said to have boasted 150,000 members at the time and led by famous socialist Eugene Debs refused to operate Pullman train cars, snarling mail delivery and prompting President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops to break up the strike. Rioting and arson broke out, and it evolved into what s now considered. A national Labor Day holiday was declared within months. Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter say Cleveland supported the idea of such a holiday, which already existed in several states, in an effort to make peace with the unions before he ran for re-election. (He would lose anyway. ) But perhaps one of the most eloquent explanations of why the federal government saw fit to declare the holiday can be found in a Congressional committee report on the matter. Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced a bill, S. 730, to Congress shortly after the Pullman strike, proposing Labor Day be the first Monday in September. Here s how Rep. Lawrence McGann (D-IL), who sat on the Committee on Labor, argued for the holiday in a submitted on May 15, 1894: The use of national holidays is to emphasize some great event or principle in the minds of the people by giving them a day of rest and recreation, a day of enjoyment, in commemoration of it. By making one day in each year a public holiday for the benefit of workingmen the equality and dignity of labor is emphasized.
Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained. So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen. The celebration of Labor Day as a national holiday will in time naturally lead to an honorable emulation among the different crafts beneficial to them and to the whole public. It will tend to increase the feeling of common brotherhood among men of all crafts and callings, and at the same time kindle an honorable desire in each craft to surpass the rest. There can be no substantial objection to making one day in the year a national holiday for the benefit of labor. The labor organizations of the whole country, representing the great body of our artisan population, request it. They are the ones most interested. They desire it and should have it. If the farmers, manufacturers, and professional men are indifferent to the measure, or even oppose it, which there is no reason to believe, that still would constitute no good objection, for their work can be continued on holidays as well as on other days if they so desire it. Workingmen should have one day in the year peculiarly their own. Nor will their employers lose anything by it. Workingmen are benefited by a reasonable amount of rest and recreation. Whatever makes a workingman more of a man makes him more useful as a craftsman. Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28, 1894. Now, more than a century later, Labor Day is firmly entrenched on the American calendar but it does still come with at least one, much smaller, controversy: the old fashion debate over whether it s taboo to