A History of Labor Day

This past Monday, America and some other countries celebrated Labor Day. Besides a day off of school and work, I wondered what is Labor Day? Why do we celebrate Labor Day? So, like any good historian, I set to find the answer for all of you.

This story begins back in the late 1800s. To set the stage: after the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States went through a period called Reconstruction. Reconstruction ended in 1876 with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as a compromise (that’s a story for another time though). Shortly after this, England began to industrialize quickly. The United States, not wanting to be outdone, leapt at the opportunity to industrialize and mass produce. Almost everyone able was working in the factories. This included children, elderly, and immigrants.

Because America wanted to make their statement on the world and show they were going to be a contender, factories were opened very frequently and workers had to work extremely long hours. They usually worked twelve hours for at least six days a week. The workers did not earn very much money.

Obviously, the workers were not happy with this arrangement. There wasn’t much they could do about it though because the managers had all the power and money. Some of the workers in these factories began to unite and form labor unions to demand rights but little was accomplished.

In 1884, the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) decided that on May 1, 1886, the factory workers would demand an eight-hour workday. Protestors turned out in many major cities, but the most prominent was in Chicago. These protests continued for the next few days. On May 3, a group of striking workers tried to attack a group of strikebreakers (those still working despite the strike). Police fired into the confused crowd and ended up killing two people.

Like in most cases, this made the people angry. They met the next day to continue protesting. As police arrived to disperse the protest, someone threw a bomb into the path of the police. Police fired on the crowd (and some say the protestors fired back on the police). This was called the Haymarket Affair or Haymarket Riot.

After that, government cracked down on the idea of labor unions. People were arrested and tried for the Haymarket Riot. The eight-hour day was achieved in some places but nothing of lasting importance.

In 1893, the United States went through a brief recession. Companies, including the Pullman Railroad Company, cut wages. Many of Pullman’s workers lived in part of Chicago that Pullman also owned. So when the wages were cut, the rent was not correspondingly cut. They were unhappy and resolved to strike in the summer of 1894. When Pullman would try to hire other workers to replace the strikers, more workers would then strike. Others sympathized with the workers, and other railroad workers and companies refused to use Pullman cars. More people began to strike in support, and railroad lines in Chicago went down. During this summer, some of the strikers derailed a train which had a U.S. Mail car. This angered President Grover Cleveland and others in the Federal government. He sent troops to Chicago on July 3. As the protests grew, violence also grew. Although people originally supported the violence, the public’s opinion quickly changed. Some of the leaders were eventually arrested and tried for these protests. This was the Pullman Strike.

The most famous political cartoon of the Pullman Strike

While the Pullman Strike was occurring, President Cleveland actually signed the bill making Labor Day a holiday. This was done to attempt to ease the tensions occurring in Chicago.

Fortunately, the original meaning of the holiday is pretty much still the reason for it today. Back then, just as now, it is meant to celebrate the hard work people do. Though most of us now don’t have to worry about long twelve hours of work each day. Our working conditions and wages have gotten significantly better over time.

So there you have it. Labor Day came about in one of the worst times of worker’s history. But now it is a day to rest from work, even though we have other jobs besides factories now.


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