Millions of American people work each day to provide for their families and for themselves. Building a career, finding a job, working to live. The hard work of American citizens is celebrated with an annual holiday called Labor Day. Around the world, other countries call it Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day, but the meaning is the same.
Working is a fact of life and while there are numerous types of jobs out there, everyone does their part to make their lives and the lives of their families the best they can be. In doing this, the gears of nations like America and countries around the world can continue turning and generating the things that everyone needs.
From the farmers to the corporate businessmen and women, everyone plays a role in society and in the economy as a valuable addition to the workforce. Let’s examine the history of this iconic holiday, and how it’s celebrated so we can better enjoy this day of acknowledging the hard working people of America and around the world.
In the United States, this is a holiday that is held on the first Monday September each year. For 2015, the date will be September 7th. The purpose of the holiday is to celebrate the social and economic contributions of the citizens involved in the American labor movement.
This day is meant to acknowledge the importance of the work that each individual citizen does to better the whole of their nation. During this time of celebration, the country also reflects on how far they’ve come in seeking favorable labor laws and workplaces. While there is always room to grow, the day is meant to celebrate what has been accomplished and where the future is going.
In other parts of the world, similar celebrations are held. In Canada, Labour Day is also recognized on the first Monday in September each year as an example. In over 80 other countries around the world, the equivalent holiday is held on May 1st and is known as International Workers’ Day.
The date of this international holiday is also coincides with a traditional spring holiday known as May Day. This happens to be a public holiday in many countries so in some cases the celebration is for the workers, and in other cases it is for the beginning of spring.
It is no secret that the history of organized labor has been filled with various events both positive and negative. Like any growing and evolving movement, there are roadblocks to be expected. Two major events in American history pushed the nation towards a drastic change and a holiday to remember why such changes were needed and celebrate the ongoing progress.
The first of these events is known as the Pullman Strike. This was a nationwide railroad strike in the United States that occurred in the summer of 1894. The sides were the American Railway Union (ARU) against the federal government of the United States and the Pullman Company.
The strike began on May 11th in Pullman, Chicago when 4,000 factory workers started a wildcat strike to protest a decrease in their wages. Many of these workers lived in a “company town” in the South Side of Chicago. This small city was designed by George Pullman to house the employees.
When he lowered the wages, he simultaneously refused to lower the rent for employees in the town. This struck a nerve and resulted in a massive strike and boycott of trains carrying Pullman cars. Almost all of the rail lines running through the west were affected. 250,000 workers in 27 states participated.
Eventually the federal government was forced to intervene when the U.S. Postage was affected by the strike. The president at the time, Grover Cleveland, order the United States Marshals and over 12,000 United States Army troops to break up the strike. Through several outbreaks of violence, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. Property damages were upwards of $80 million.
The Pullman strike had a major affect on the public opinion and general approach to labor laws and issues in the United States. On May 4, 1886 however, tragedy struck again in a way that moved not just the United States, but the whole world towards a day of remembrance and celebration of the working class.
On the aforementioned date, a peaceful rally was taking place in Haymarket Square which is located in Chicago, Illinois. The rally was meant to support an ongoing strike for workers to have an eight-hour day. The previous day, several workers were killed by the police as well. During the rally, an unknown assailant threw a dynamite bomb as the police officers attempting to break up the rally.
The blast and resulting chaos left seven police officers and four civilians dead. Countless others were wounded as well during the attack. This moment of extreme tragedy was followed by a trial that sentenced seven men to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison. Evidence was found that they helped build the bomb but it was never confirmed who threw it.
The Haymarket Affair as it is sometimes known, is widely recognized as the origin of May Day observances for International Worker’s Day which played a significant role in the creation of a similar holiday in the United States. William J. Adelman, a labor studies professor commented on the event with the following statement:
"No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance."
The first mention of such a holiday is disputed but there are two men who are credited with first suggesting such a concept:
The holiday was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor organizations. The first parade took place in New York City after the Haymarket Massacre. After the incidents surrounding the Pullman strike, President Grover Cleveland decide to push through legislation for a national holiday as quickly as possible.
The United States Congress unanimously voted to approve the rushed legislation. President Cleveland signed the bill into law only six days after the end of the strike. By the time it was signed into law, the holiday was already being celebrated by over 30 states.
Originally the holiday was celebrated on May 1st, but President Cleveland thought that this could be seen as a means to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, so he established the holiday in September to ensure there was no correlation.
The first proposal of this holiday included a method of celebrating it: “A street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” This was to be followed by a celebration for workers and their families. As time went on, the holiday was also celebrated with other additional practices.
Public speakers and a focus on the civil aspects of the holiday have become more prominent in recent years. A resolution from the American Federation of Labor convention in 1909 also named the Sunday prior to the holiday as “Labor Sunday” and dedicated it to the spiritual and educational aspects of the Labor movement.
The holiday has ironically become a major sale day for retail companies as well since most other industries allow their workers to have the day off from work. This amount of free time results in so many people shopping that the holiday has been compared to Black Friday in terms of sheer sales volumes. The irony is in the fact that retail workers usually have longer hours on this holiday.
In sports, the holiday is the beginning of the NFL and college football seasons. The United States Department of Labor also sees this holiday as a time to showcase plans for the future of wellness for everyone in the labor industry. As of Labor Day 2014, there were several initiatives in place that continue to be a focus for the organization:
While there are some tragedies tied to the history of the holiday, ultimately this holiday has served to celebrate the growth towards safe and fair workplaces for people around the world.