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The American labor movement and the arduous road to 'Labor Day'

1 month 2 weeks 1 day ago Monday, September 06 2021 Sep 6, 2021 September 06, 2021 10:39 AM September 06, 2021 in News
Source: History.com

Every year, on the first Monday in September, the United States pauses to observe Labor Day.

In communities across the U.S., the day is often used to enjoy meals and relaxation with family and friends.

But this is in sharp contrast to the difficult and often bloody road that led to the holiday's conception. 

So, what exactly is Labor Day's origin story?

According to History.com, Labor Day was created to honor the contributions and achievements of American workers who had, for years, been voicing concerns about unsafe working conditions and low wages.

Essentially, the holiday was meant to assure American workers that their outcry for change had been heard. 

In the years leading up to 1894, which was when Labor Day officially became a federal holiday, working conditions in America were quite poor.

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average U.S. worker struggled through 12-hour days, seven days a week. It was a harsh schedule that offered little in return. Wages barely covered an employee's basic needs. 

These challenging conditions didn't only affect adults. Historians say children as young as five and six years of age labored in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a mere fraction of an adult employee's wages.

Workers, especially very poor and recent immigrants, often toiled through extremely unsafe working conditions until labor unions, which first appeared in the late 18th century, became more prominent and vocal in demanding change.

The unions began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions and urge employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

Many of these events were violent. At one 1886 riot in Chicago, several policemen and workers lost their lives. This event became known as the infamous Haymarket Riot.

But a few years earlier, 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 U.S. history.

This triggered the idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” that would be celebrated on the first Monday in September.

People liked the idea and eventually a number of states passed legislation to officially recognize it.

That said, Congress took 12 years to legalize the holiday.

They decided to do so in 1894, after employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.

That June, when the American Railroad Union called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars and crippled railroad traffic nationwide, the federal government decided to take action.

It dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.

During this tumultuous time of unrest, the government attempted to make peace with American workers by passing an act that would officially label Labor Day as a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

The national holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on June 28, 1894.

Though some suggest that Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, created

Eventually, the U.S. holiday was commemorated with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays and other public gatherings.

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