Labor Day, the American holiday observed on the first Monday in September, has evolved into a day marking the end of summer, typically celebrated with parties, parades, and various athletic events. Nothing wrong with a three-day weekend, or getting together with family and friends for some wholesome fun! Still, like many holidays here in the US (and I suspect in other countries too) the origin and true meaning of Labor Day should not be forgotten.
As noted on the United States Department of Labor website —
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
This video (shared from the History Channel’s page on Labor day – History.com ) is a bouncy, visually pleasing summation of the labor movement in the US, and Canada, that ultimately led to the creation of Labor Day.
A Bit More History on Labor Day
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories, and mines across the country, and people of all ages faced extremely unsafe working conditions, insufficient access to fresh air, inferior sanitary facilities, and short or non-existent rest breaks. As manufacturing employment increasingly supplanted agriculture jobs in America, labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. Workers, backed by the labor unions, began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.
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. While many of these events turned violent — such as the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886 — others were beneficial to the cause. The first governmental recognition of a Labor Day for industrial workers came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. The New York legislature introduced the first state bill, but it was Oregon that passed the first law on February 21, 1887. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed that same year. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers.
Congress required dramatic, nationwide attention of the labor movement to be convinced.
On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman, Illinois near Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. In June, the American Railroad Union (ARU) supported the strike by calling for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had “walked off” the job rather than handle Pullman cars. These combined actions crippled railroad traffic across the entire United States. To break the strike, the federal government, under orders of President Grover Cleveland, dispatched troops to Chicago, which unleashed a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of 34 workers and damage exceeding $80 million before the strike was officially declared over on August 3.
While the ARU and Pullman workers were unsuccessful in gaining what they wanted from the strike, the massive wave of unrest and damaged ties to American workers everywhere made Congress take a serious look at the concept of a Labor Day holiday. In a purely conciliatory action, Congress swiftly passed a bill introduced by South Dakota senator James H. Kyle the year prior. President Grove Cleveland signed the bill on June 28, 1894, a mere six days after sending troops to break the Pullman strike.
“…the day [Labor Day Holiday] for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed… that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”
~Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, in 1898
Labor Day Fun Facts
There is still a Labor Day parade in New York City, which takes place throughout the 20 blocks north of the 1882 labor march.
Labor Day movements began in Toronto, Canada in 1872, sparking the movement in the United States.
Many other countries celebrate May Day a holiday very similar to our Labor Day, dedicated to workers’ rights.
In the early 20th century, white was the uniform of choice for Americans well-to-do enough to decamp from their city digs to warmer climes for months at a time. The white linen suits and Panama hats at snooty resorts were “a look of leisure” providing a pleasing contrast to drab urban life. Historians say the expression “no white after Labor Day” comes from this period when the upper class would return from their summer vacations, and stow away their lightweight, white summer clothes as they returned back to school and work.
The football season starts on or around Labor Day and many teams play their first game of the year during Labor Day weekend. This year, 2015, the NFL season launches next weekend, which must be quite disappointing to some fans!
After the declared Labor Day holiday in 1894, it would take 23 more years for the Adamson Act to pass and establish the 8-hour workday and 40-hour workweek we know today.
According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, hot dog season begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day. This is one “rule” I can guarantee I will be ignoring, as I have for my entire life thus far!
Labor Day Appropriate Movies
There have been numerous movies about workers and labor unions, as well as movies where the events happen over Labor Day. Comedies to musicals to Oscar-winning dramas, and everywhere in between. The collage of movie posters below are eight movies I have seen and loved, so can recommend for viewing at any time. Other common mentions for perfect Labor Day themed movies are listed below, some that I have seen and others not, Lots to choose from!
Stand By Me (1986)
Dirty Dancing (1987)
American Graffiti (1977)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Blue Collar (1978)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Now it is YOUR turn! What did you do this Labor Day weekend? Do you have any special past Labor Day memories to share? Did you have any specific labor union or workforce incidents in your life? What about your favorite work-related or Labor Day related movies?