Labor Day stands for many things in America today. Often it marks the beginning of a new school year and the end of summer. We celebrate with barbecues, parades and athletic events across the country. But how did the Labor Day holiday originate? It wasn't as easy as your day off.
During the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, the average American worker spent more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week in extremely unsafe working conditions. There were no regulated breaks, no access to fresh air, no clean bathrooms and children as young as five years old worked side by side adults earning anywhere from 40 cents to $1 to help their family survive. Could you imagine?
Manufacturing continued to grow, becoming the leading employment sector for Americans and labor unions saw the need to protest the poor conditions, long hours and meager pay. Strikes and rallies began to break out. Many turned violent, leaving workers and policemen injured or dead. Some paved the way for the future holiday, like the strike on September 5, 1882 when 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first unofficial Labor Day parade. While many states recognized the need for a “workingman’s holiday”, Congress would not legalize it for another 12 years.
Everything changed in 1894, when the Pullman Palace Car Company workers in Chicago went on strike, triggering the American Railroad Union to boycott all Pullman railway cars until the strike ended. Railroad traffic was brought to a halt across the country causing the Federal Government to dispatch troops to Chicago. This response unleashed violent riots with the protesters and more than a dozen lives were lost. In the wake of the violence and as a last attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress finally passed an act to create Labor Day as a nationally recognized holiday.
Our economy has drastically changed since 1910, moving from a manufacturing-centric economy to the service dominated economy we see today. Recognize that this year we have more than 155 million labor workers over the age of 16, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While you relax with family and friends on Labor Day, remember that American’s stood up for their rights and fought for this day of recognition. Enjoy and Happy Labor Day!