Features

History Lesson: Labor Day

Since we get a long weekend to celebrate Labor Day, we thought we do a quick history lesson on how this holiday came to be!

On the surface, Labor Day celebrates the contributions and achievements of American workers. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. But getting to the creation of this holiday was no easy task.

In the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution in country, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to live a basic living. Even though it was restricted, in some states, children as young as 5 and 6 worked in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning all but nothing.

Workers of all ages, usually poor and/or immigrants, often faced unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

Finally the workers said, “Enough is enough!” And began organizing strikes and rallies to protest the deplorable conditions and to urge employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the Haymarket Riot of 1886, where several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Other events gave rise to traditions that would last a long time. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in the US.

But sadly congress would not legalize the holiday until twelve years later, when the following happened. 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. Then on June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break up the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, which created a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.

Following all the unrest and in an attempt to fix ties with American workers, Congress finally passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

While you celebrate a day off this weekend, raise a glass to the American worker who struggled for better working conditions and a decent wage!

On a side note: the five day work would not become a thing until fourteen years later in 1908.

You'll Also Like

About the Author

Maureen Dahill

Maureen Dahill is the editor of Caught in Southie and Caught in Dot and a lifelong resident of South Boston sometimes mistaken for a yuppie. Hockey mom, yoga enthusiast, lover of red wine and binge watching TV series. Mrs. Peter G. Follow her @MaureenCaught.