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A Hard-Earned 3-Day Weekend: This Labor Day Remember Its Roots

Old Train: The history of Labor Day

For most people in America, Labor Day means barbecuing with friends, camping with family, or having one last visit to the lake. But the fact that you are enjoying a long weekend before summer’s end has significant historical roots. While Labor Day parades may be a thing of the past, take a moment to pay homage to the founders of the “workingman’s holiday.” Here’s how it all began…

The Violent History of Labor Day

In the spring of 1894, circumstances were desperate for railway workers in Chicago. Given the national wave of bankruptcies a year earlier, followed by a deep economic depression, circumstances were pretty dismal for most American workers.

In the 1890s, the average laborer worked 10-hour days 6 days per week. Conditions were dangerous. Pay was meager. On top of that, some company employees—including those employed by Chicago railway mogul George Pullman—were forced to live in (and pay for) housing owned by the company itself. When Pullman laid off hundreds of workers and slashed wages in response to a reduced demand for railway cars (yet leaving housing costs untouched) it was enough to make workers strike.

Labor protests weren’t unheard of by this time. In fact, an increasing number of clashes between industrialists and labor organizations had peppered the landscape for more than a decade. For the most part, at least on the level of policy change, they were largely unsuccessful. But the labor movement was gaining momentum.

In fact, more than a decade earlier New York City’s Central Labor Union had launched its first “workingman’s holiday,” held on a Tuesday in September of 1882, with a parade and picnic to celebrate laborers and their families. Gradually other industrial centers, often led by labor organizations, did the same. By 1887 only 3 states—New York, New Jersey and Colorado—had officially adopted the holiday, but in the spring of 1894, that was about to change.

As Chicago’s Pullman Strike grew increasingly contentious, President Grover Cleveland, eager to keep the railroads (and, thus, postal service) operational, sent in federal troops to crush the protest. Dozens of protesters died or were injured. The following month, in June of 1894, Cleveland signed an act of Congress establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday to be observed annually on the first Monday in September.

Did Cleveland’s gesture assuage the grieving families of those who died or were injured in the Pullman strike? Certainly not. Nor did Congress’ adoption of the “workingman’s holiday” do much to improve working conditions. That would take another few decades [see the sidebar for details].  Nonetheless, the president’s act did acknowledge the growing influence and bargaining power of American workers. More than 120 years later, it still does.

If you are fortunate enough to celebrate the end of summer with a three-day weekend this Labor Day, raise a glass to the laborers who had the foresight and courage to push for recognition, relaxation and so much more. Cheers!

Summary of Key Labor Rights Acts

1935 National Labor Relations Act
Guaranteed the right of private-sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for better terms and conditions at work—and take collective action including strike if necessary

1938 Fair Labor Standards Act
Established a federal minimum wage and discouraged working weeks greater than 40 hours by introducing time-and-a-half overtime pay

1963 Equal Pay Act of 1963
Abolished wage disparity based on sex

1964 Civil Rights Act
Determined all employers and labor unions have a duty to treat employees equally, without discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” (Additional groups with “protected status” were added via separate acts in 1967 and 1990.)

1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act
Required employees to have a safe system of work

1988 The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act
Required employing entities give 60-days’ notice if more than 50 or 1/3 of the workforce may lose their jobs.

1993 Family Medical Leave Act
Created a limited right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in larger employers

Sources About Labor Day: