What Labor Day Is Really All About

Get the grills going! Stock up on beer and burgers! Labor Day is here and most of us will be heading out to picnic with friends and family. We‘ll salute the passing of another summer and note, however grudgingly, the onset of fall. But how many of us will pause to recall, even briefly, the origins and meaning of this national holiday?

Labor Day was, in fact, founded by America’s earliest labor unions as a tribute to the working people who built our country. The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882, organized by the city’s Central Labor Union to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

Workers then had no legal right to form unions and few protections on the job. Twelve-hour work days and seven-day work weeks were the norm, child labor was commonplace, and workplace fatalities were a daily occurrence.

Yet it was an era known as the Gilded Age because its merchant class grew ever wealthier, with vast fortunes to squander on untold luxuries.

That gaping inequity between the moneyed few and the millions who struggled just to survive soon sparked widespread rebellion. Workers began to stand up for themselves, to develop unions as an organized counterweight to the power of employers, to challenge the harsh working conditions that cut short so many lives.

The reaction was swift and fierce. Employers harassed, fired, beat, and even killed workers who dared to press for dignity and fairness on the job.

It was in the midst of these fierce battles that New York’s labor unions decided to stake their claim to public space and recognition. Though billed only as a parade, that first Labor Day celebration was a bold affirmation of workers’ growing power. It required participants to defy their employers by not reporting to work that day.

At first it seemed few were willing to take that risk. Only a small number of workers had assembled at the parade’s start. But as the bands began to play and the first marchers stepped off, more and more groups joined in. Before long some 10,000 working men and women, proud and strong, jammed the city streets.

Labor groups in other states quickly followed suit—and some states even passed laws making it official. But it took more than a decade and one of the great battles of American labor history to formally add Labor Day to the roster of U.S. holidays.

In May 1894, some 4,000 workers at the Pullman rail car manufacturing plant on Chicago’s South Side walked off the job in response to wage cuts of 25 percent. Having barely begun to form a union, they faced daunting odds.

“We do not expect the company to concede to our demands,” one worker said. “We do know that we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and our families … and on that proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.”

The strike spread to other cities, eventually involving more than 100,000 workers. The American Railway Union pressed the railroad industry to agree to arbitration of the dispute. When employers refused, a boycott of rail transport shut down most of the nation’s rail lines.

In response, President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to break the strike. The ensuing battles were bloody and brutal, with 13 workers killed and more than 50 seriously wounded in Chicago alone.

Working people nationwide were outraged. With an election looming, Cleveland tried to appease their anger by championing Labor Day as a new federal holiday and Congress quickly gave its stamp of approval in June 1894.

But that gesture did not suffice. Cleveland was defeated for reelection. And the raw memory of the Pullman strike became the engine that powered a renewed labor organizing effort all across the country.

By the early part of the 20th century, America’s workers had built strong unions in every major industry. In the ensuing years, unions reshaped the nation’s workplaces through contracts and laws that established 40-hour weeks and overtime pay, provided for holidays and vacations, raised wages, improved safety and ensured that workers were treated with a measure of respect and fairness.

I will never forget speaking on a panel years ago with a man then in his eighties. His personal history went back to the days when the labor movement was just emerging—and he summed up the changes it had wrought in the starkest of statements: “Before the union,” he said simply, “they treated us like dogs.”

This year as we gather for Labor Day, we can’t ignore the rise of those forces who want to wipe out unions in our country—to go back to the days when employers had all the power and workers were at their mercy. Here in Illinois, our own governor, Bruce Rauner, is a prime example of this ferocious anti-unionism.

So let’s also take the opportunity to recall the dedication of those American workers who came before us, who refused to bow down or be walked on, who took risks to uphold their basic rights, who built strong unions not just for themselves but for all of those—like us—who came after. Let’s honor their courage and carry it on.

CONVERSATIONS