Labor Day’s Origins

Labor Day was born in the time before overtime pay, before workplace safety or child labor laws, before the labor movement made gains such as the right to bargain collectively or the 40 hour week— birthed by intensive worker organizing against working conditions we can scarcely imagine today.

On September 5, 1882, thousands of workers in New York City took unpaid time off to march to Union Square in what is now considered the first Labor Day parade, led by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor. History attributes the idea for this event to multiple trade guys named McGuire (exactly who is in dispute). The practice of taking an annual holiday to celebrate workers spread to industrial centers throughout the U.S. in the ensuing years, but it did not become a national holiday until the labor upheavals of 1894.

As is so often the case in labor history, the watershed events took place here in Chicago. The infamous 1894 strike in the South Side neighborhood of Pullman brought the intense conflict between workers and government-backed big businesses of that era into full public view. In response to wage reductions and layoffs, members of the American Railway Union led a strike against the railway magnate George Pullman over wage reductions and layoffs. Workers refused to stand down, and Pullman refused to negotiate. President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 federal troops to Chicago to support Pullman in breaking the strike. Violence ensued, and more than a dozen workers were killed. The leaders of the strike – most famously Eugene Debs – were sent to prison.

In an effort to improve his reputation in the wake of this state violence against labor, President Cleveland shortly thereafter declared a federal holiday to celebrate the achievements of labor. He chose the first weekend in September for Labor Day over the more standard International Worker Day holiday of May 1 in an effort to distance the occasion from another infamously violent labor-state conflict in Chicago, the Haymarket Affair in May 1886, which motivated the creation of May Day as a labor holiday.

Check out this PBS article for a brief, fascinating description of what life was like for workers in Pullman at the time of the strike, as well as the following great quote:

“[Labor Day] is the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

– Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, 1898

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