Image from: https://www.businessinsider.com/labor-day-history-2017-8
The first Monday in September is Labor Day. Most of us believe people get the day off to celebrate the importance of workers to our country. The truth is we all don’t get the day off. On Labor Day people work in retail, restaurants, police departments, fire departments, hospitals, government, and private companies.
As my sources note, we also have no real rituals connected to the holiday. Oh, we might have a picnic or a barbecue. We might travel somewhere for a long weekend. For others, the day marks the last day in the pool, or (in New Jersey) a last visit to the Shore. For kids in northern states, it is their last day of freedom before the school year starts. And, of course, there are the Labor Day sales, where we can pick up new clothes and other items.
So, what the heck is this thing? Why do we really have it? After looking at three articles online, I think it grew out of several things: the desire to bring small unions together beginning in 1882, a bloody strike in 1894 and President Grover Cleveland’s move to smooth things over with fellow democrats, many of whom were Roman Catholic unionists, and the call to reduce the number of working hours and days for employees.
As far as I'm concerned, there is no ultimate answer. Like many things historical, Labor Day appears to have emerged from multiple forces.
Let’s start with the first real Labor Day. It was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York City and held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. It consisted of a parade, and was followed by a picnic. The goal was to “bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.” Since there was no local or federal Labor Day holiday at that time, the union called a one-day strike, which I find to be a unique way of playing hooky. (Zagorsky) And so, one of its roots is in worker solidarity and power.
But, as Cain's article in the Business Insider points out, there is another side to Labor Day that is violent. All the following information about the Pullman Strike of 1894 comes from Cain's article.
In the train industry, Pullman cars were considered to be the epitome of luxury. Founder George Pullman treated his workers well. He provided them with company-owned living quarters. How lavish the homes, apartments, and dormitories were depended upon one’s status in the company, of course. The higher up you were, the better your housing was, but even the worst accommodations were far from being tenements.
Everything was going well until a Panic (depression) began in 1893, and would not end until 1897. Faced with a plummet in profits, Pullman decided to deal with the economic disaster by lowering employee wages. Eventually he cut wages by 30%. The trouble was that he refused to lower the rent on both company-owned housing and the cost of items in the company’s stores.
Finally, on 11 May 1894, with the support of the American Railway Union, Pullman workers began a strike.
Despite the offers of numerous groups to serve as mediators, George Pullman stubbornly stood his ground and would not meet with the strikers. Growing criticism was leveled at Pullman, and the emboldened president of the American Railroad Union, Eugene Debs, announced that its members would not work on trains having Pullman cars. Train traffic west of Chicago came to a halt.
The railroad companies, faced with a declining profit margin, did what many companies do when faced with a strike: they hired “scabs” (non-union-affiliated workers). In retaliation, crowds of railroad workers and others tried to stop the trains from running by standing in front of the tracks and throwing objects at the trains.
Predictably, things got worse. A group representing the Chicago railroad companies asked Attorney General Richard Olney to intervene and he was able to get an injunction to stop the strike. However, John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, refused to authorize President Cleveland to send in federal troops. In the end, though, the federal government sent soldiers to stop the strike. In addition, the Chicago railroad managers group deputized federal marshals.
Violence took over as federal forces did battle with the strikers. By the time it was all over, 30 people had died and $80 million had been accrued in riot damages. Cain’s article in the Business Insider postulates that it is likely President Cleveland proclaimed Labor Day as a workers’ holiday to please his constituents, many of whom were urban, Catholic, and Democratic workers.
However, Zagorsky’s article in The Conversation suggests that Labor Day came about due to pressure put upon government officials and business owners to decrease the number of hours and days employees were required to work.
Zagorsky notes that workers in manufacturing during the 1830s averaged a 70-hour work week. That comes to a 10-hour day, seven days a week. By 1890, workers were still on the job 60 hours a week (meaning they had a 10-hour day, if they worked six days a week). However, by that time, unions had begun pushing for an eight-hour work day, a six-day work week, and more days off.
The good news is that the movement did not meet with resistance from politicians and business owners. Well, that's a shock. Why would they that? The answer is simple: a consumer society was emerging. The logic is if workers had a bit of free time, they would take trips, eat out, and spend money on other forms of entertainment. (Zagorsky)
The controversy, then, was not whether workers should get a holiday, as well as adjusted hours and working days. No. According to Zagorsky, the controversy was about the shape the new holiday would take. Would it be more militant with demonstrations and protests and located on the first of May (May Day), as communists and other socialists suggested? Or would it be a more moderate affair of picnics and parades and held in September?
I guess you know which version won. Americans usually take the middle way. (Remember, I said usually.)
I want to mention one last point that Zagorsky raised. These days, not only do some people engaged in retail, restaurants, essential services, and so on have to work on Labor Day, but a growing number of us are don't get the day off, either. Email, phones calls, and texts from co-workers or bosses can call us to answer a question or solve a problem, no matter what the day is. Heck, they can even chase us down when we’re on vacation.
So, I am suggesting this: take the day off if you are able and be kind to those who can't. Don’t look at your devices unless you absolutely have to. Instead, have a picnic. Go for a walk. Play a board game with your kids. Go for a swim.
And remember… your employment is valuable. You are valuable. You contribute to our nation.
Happy Labor Day!
I'll see you Tuesday! Yes, I'm taking Monday off.
Áine Cain. Business Insider. “The US celebrates Labor Day because of a bloody clash over 100 years ago that left 30 people dead and cost $80 million in damages” Sep. 2, 2017.
Union Plus. Labor Day History: Celebrating the Workers Who Make America Run
Jay L. Zagorsky. The Conversation. The Eclectic Economist: “Have We Forgotten to the True Meaning of Labor Day?” August 29, 2017