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Opinion: From violent protests to holiday pay — the history of Labor Day

Labor day plans began during the era of 12 hour work days, 6 days a week. Workers needed a break — but we still find many workers at their jobs today on a holiday intended for them

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Remigio Portillo wins the mucking category of the miner competition as Park City celebrates its mining heritage.

Remigio Portillo competes in and wins the mucking category of the miner competition as Park City celebrates its mining heritage over Labor Day weekend on Sept. 3, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For many, Labor Day is the unofficial end to summer, three-day weekend getaways, a day to go to a beach or lake, for celebrations, parades, barbecues, pool parties, firework displays and sales. For others, it is supposedly the last day of the year when you should wear white. Labor Day, however, is important for far more than just ushering out summer.

The origins of the holiday, celebrated every year in the United States and Canada on the first Monday in September, date back to the late 19th century. 

At the time, many American workers toiled at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, at low-paying jobs at mines, factories, mills and railroads. Where conditions were often dismal and dangerous, and children were exploited as cheap laborers. Outrage over these terrible conditions birthed the labor movement, which organized strikes and rallies to protest the poor working conditions and to negotiate better hours and pay.

Plans turn to protests

The first Labor Day, author Ellen M. Litwicki tells us, “grew out of the plans by socialist members” of New York’s Central Labor Union for a “monster labor festival.” An estimated 10,000 workers of all ideological stripes on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, marched in the first Labor Day parade from New York’s City Hall to Wendel’s Elm Park. Many of the workers who participated risked their jobs and livelihoods as they carried signs calling for “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work” and “Less Hours and More Pay.”

Afterward, the idea of a “workingman’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other cities across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. At the same time, labor unions grew more prominent and began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor working conditions, long hours and poor pay.

On more than one occasion, these events turned violent. One of the most infamous occurred in May 1886, at Chicago’s Haymarket Square after an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at policemen attempting to break up what had begun as a peaceful labor rally. The ensuing clashes between the police and protesters, left at least seven policemen and four demonstrators dead.

After the Haymarket Riot, the leaders of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor in the late 1880s and 1890s transformed Labor Day “into a vehicle for its pragmatic philosophy,” as Litwicki says. “It became an occasion to celebrate the American laborer ... who used nonviolent strikes as tactical maneuvers to gain practical benefits, not to attack industrial capitalism, and prided himself in being a patriotic, flag-waving American.”

Not until the deadly Pullman Strike of 1894, which was centered in Chicago, crippled rail traffic and commerce nationwide did Congress finally begin to show support for American workers. While the strike was still raging, Congress rushed to pass legislation designating Labor Day a federal holiday. Creation of the holiday, however, did not stop the strike.

Within days, the federal government intervened with an injunction, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago and elsewhere to enforce the injunction, and rioting and violence ensued. “Never before had the nation seen a strike and boycott of such frightening magnitude,” writes historian David Raye Papke.

By the time the bloody clashes were over, hundreds of rail cars had been destroyed by rioters, 30 people were dead in Chicago and 40 in other states, and the property damage exceeded $80 million. In the end, the American Railroad Union was unable to secure broader support from other labor leaders and the boycott was finally broken, and Eugene V. Debs, leader of the railroad union, and three other union officials were jailed for disobeying the injunction.

Slow changes to the laborer’s day

While labor technically did get a holiday as a consequence of the strike, the law only mandated a day off for employees of the federal government and District of Columbia. State laws generally did not force private employers to give workers a day off and only gradually did businesses begin to close for the holiday.

Railroad workers didn’t get a standard eight-hour workday until 1916, after another massive railroad workers’ strike that saw nearly 400,000 railway workers vote to authorize a strike unless the rule was implemented. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Adamson Act, making an eight-hour workday the legal standard, after asking Congress to pass legislation establishing an eight-hour day to avoid a crippling nationwide rail strike.

It would take another 22 years for Congress to expand the standardized eight-hour workday to several other industries beyond railroads. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 also set a minimum wage and overtime pay, mandated a shorter workweek and banned oppressive child labor in all business engaged in interstate commerce.

This Labor Day, let us not forget to pause at least momentarily to remember those who fought for employee rights and safer working conditions, and also take time to acknowledge the contributions of today’s working men and women.

Today, tens of thousands of Americans still must work on a holiday specially dedicated to the appreciation of labor. As a consequence of the holiday’s sales, retail workers have to work longer hours. Many gas stations and convenience stores continue to serve us. Correction officers, police officials, firefighters, doctors, nurses and many others labor on our behalf, largely unnoticed or appreciated.

Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress from the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.”