The Origins of Labor Day

Not only is it Me-Me Monday, it’s also Labor Day here in the US.  Today’s not a day for work.  It’s a day for celebrating.  We’ll keep this simple today.  I’d like to share a short history of the origins of Labor Day.  Then, I hope you’ll all share with me how you’re celebrating.

I’m not a historian by any means.  This year, as Labor Day drew near, however, I realized I had no idea why we celebrate.  I did a little research, and this is what I came up with.

The first big Labor Day was first observed by the Central Labor Union on September 5, 1882.  The Central Labor Union was an early trade labor union which predates the consolidation of New York City.  The CLU later broke up into various locals which are now AFL-CIO members.

Labor Day became a federal holiday following the Pullman Strike–during which several people were killed.  The Pullman Strike was countrywide dispute between labor unions and the railroad.  During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demand for their train cars dropped.

Though employees took a cut in wages, rent on company owned housing and prices in the company store stayed the same.  Employees became irate.  In response, they staged a strike.

It began as a wildcat strike–which means the strikers acted without the authorization of trade union officials.  Soon, however, the American Railway Union–the country’s first industry-wide union–took up the cause.

The American Railway Union launched a boycott in which members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars.  Union members wouldn’t switch Pullman Cars.  Production shut down in Pullman factories.  At its peak, the Pullman Strike involved 250,000 works in 27 states.

Strikebreakers were hired, which added to hostilities.  Peaceful demonstrations ended in property destruction.  Across the United States, sympathy strikers ground transportation to a halt by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks, and harassing strikebreakers.

Federal action was demanded of President Grover Cleveland.  U.S. Marshalls and twelve thousand U.S. Army Troops were called to break up the strike on grounds that U.S. Mail delivery was being impeded.

Thirteen strikers were killed and fifty-seven were wounded.  It is estimated the the striking rail workers did $340,000 in property damage (which is about $8,818,000 in today’s dollars).

After the strike, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a holiday.  Appeasement of organized labor would from then on be a priority.  The legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike’s end.

Historically, Labor Day has been marked with parades and speeches.  It is regarded as a day of rest and parties, the last day of the year a woman can fashionably wear white, and the symbolic end of summer.

Forget the barbecues, the swimming parties, and the boat rides.  We’re staying home.  Highways and holidays are a deadly mixture.  Too much crazy out there.  We’ve got barbecued ribs and baked potatoes and Cheaters on the TV.

So…how are you celebrating?