Monday, Sept. 2, marked the 125th anniversary of Labor Day’s establishment as a national holiday. But the story of how it all started shows the power regular working people have when they agree to pursue a common interest.
The day’s history goes back way before 1894, the year President Grover Cleveland signed the bill making the first Monday in September a nationwide observance. In the 1830s, workers in America’s manufacturing firms were forced into long hours — nearly 70 per week on average, according to one historical survey completed for the 1880 census.
As the country’s workers moved from agriculture to manufacturing, researchers believe their work hours had actually increased, with the significant exception of African Americans who were freed from slave labor. Conditions were often unsafe within the mills and factories and even children, some as young as 5 or 6 years old, were put to work in them. The workload and poor conditions took their toll on workers’ health.
Mandatory 10 to 12-hour days, seven days a week, in poorly ventilated factories with no time for bathroom breaks sounds inhumane by modern standards. That’s in part due to the influence of the labor movement on today’s work environment.
“These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day,” Jay L. Zagorsky of Boston University wrote in “Have we forgotten the true meaning of Labor Day?”, summarizing the holiday’s history. “They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.”
The existing seven-day workweek left workers at different factories no time to gather and discuss their common interests in peaceable assembly. So in 1882, New York City’s Central Labor Union declared a single-day strike on the first Monday in September. About 10,000 workers gathered that day for a parade and “a giant picnic afterwards,” as Zagorsky described it.
The movement advocating for better treatment and shorter work hours spread across the country as more unions organized and states began passing legislation to recognize Labor Day. It was finally recognized as a national issue with the Pullman Palace Car Co. strike in 1894, which American Railroad Union members joined.
That strike stalled railroad traffic across the country and when federal troops were dispatched to break the Pullman strike, “a wave of riots” broke out, a history.com summary says, “that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.” Declaring Labor Day a national holiday that year was Congress’ way of trying to repair its damaged relations with American workers.
Leaders of working-class unions sometimes sacrificed their jobs to help out their fellow workers. But it paid off. “Those early organizers clearly won,” Zagorsky wrote, “since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.”
Treating workers better turned out to be good for business, too. Those workers found themselves with more time for traveling, attending entertainment events or dining out with their families, helping the nation’s economy expand beyond farming and manufacturing basic goods.
Let’s honor the sacrifices the early labor organizers made so workers could have time with their families and live long enough to see their children or grandchildren grow up.
— Gainesville Daily Register