Labor Day weekend was always a time of anticipation for my family because on Sunday, we met at the Scuppernong Church of Christ in Creswell for a family reunion, an event that began in 1929 and has met consecutively except for 1949 (the height of the polio epidemic), last year and, now, this year.
The reunion was marked by prayer; food; music; sharing of family births, marriages, deaths; and family togetherness, always ending with the hymn “God Be With You ‘til We Meet Again.” This year’s cancellation leads me to think about Labor Day itself — when it began, why it is a federal holiday, and why we celebrate it.
Most of the answers to these speculations lie in the website history.com which maintains that “Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers.” It became a federal holiday in 1894, and its origins rest in the late 1800s at the height of the Industrial Revolution in our country. American workers, even children, sometimes worked 12-hour days, seven days a week for low wages, especially for the poor and recent immigrants. These laborers often dealt with unsafe working conditions, unsanitary facilities, few breaks, and no fresh air.
Out of these conditions arose labor unions which organized strikes and rallies to force employers to raise salaries and improve working conditions. A rally on Sept. 5, 1882, saw 10,000 workers in New York City leave their jobs to march from City Hall to Union Square, the first Labor Day parade in American history. But another rally, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, resulted in violence in which Chicago police officers and workers were killed.
LEGALIZING LABOR DAY
The idea of a “workingman’s holiday” caught on in many states where legislatures officially recognized it, though Congress did not make Labor Day a legal holiday until 12 years later. New York was the first state to introduce a bill, but Oregon was the first state to recognize Labor Day. During 1887, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York legalized Labor Day. Eventually Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania passed legislation to establish a Labor Day; by 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday.
Perhaps Congress reacted to what history.com calls a “watershed moment in American labor history”: On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Co. in Chicago went on strike to protest salary cuts of 28% and the firing of union representatives.
EUGENE V. DEBS
On June 26, 1894, Eugene V. Debs, American socialist, political activist, and trade unionist, helped to establish the American Railway Union, one of the country’s first industrial unions. Debs signed many workers from the Pullman Palace Car Co. into the ARU, leading a boycott in the Pullman strike, which affected railroad lines and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states.
Debs was sent to prison for six months for defying a court injunction against the strike. While incarcerated, he read works of socialist theory which influenced his becoming committed to the socialist movement. He ran as the socialist candidate for president of the United States five times. He initially opposed strikes as a way of achieving better pay and hours for workers, but he changed course as the Pullman strike gained more members. Because the Pullman cars delivered the mail, the federal government intervened.
President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. Army to enforce the injunction, resulting in the deaths of 30 strikers and $80 million worth of property damage in the melee.
FOUNDER(S) OF LABOR DAYSources credit two men with proposing Labor Day: Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, sought to designate a “general holiday for the laboring classes ... who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Another camp supported a machinist, Matthew Maguire, as the founder. Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, proposed the holiday in 1882. He later was the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey. After President Grover Cleveland signed the law creating a national Labor Day, the Paterson newspaper published an opinion piece naming Maguire as “the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”
Both Maguire and McGuire attended the country’s first Labor Day parade in New York City.
Other countries also observe a Labor Day, including Australia, New Zealand, China, England, Germany, and Mexico. The U.S. Department of Labor website affirms that “American labor has raised the nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known, and the labor movement has brought us close to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate that the nation pays tribute to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
In case you have wondered, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 changed several holidays to Mondays so that federal employees could have more three-day weekends. Thus, we celebrate Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Columbus Day on fixed Mondays each year.
The Department of Labor established a Hall of Honor in 1988 to recognize individuals and groups of Americans who have made extraordinary contributions to labor issues and concerns. Located in the Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C., it displays portraits and brief biographies of inductees like Helen Keller, Eugene V. Debs, the Chinese Railroad Workers, the 9/11 Rescue Workers, Cesar E. Chavez, John L. Lewis, and others from 1889 to the present year.
Like Independence Day and Memorial Day, this holiday arose from conflict and violence as workers sought to improve their workplaces and their economic status. They were searching for freedom from poverty, from the discrimination of being poor, from the limitations and lack of opportunity that result from an unfair economy.
Let’s enjoy our picnics, family reunions, and free time as we raise a glass to the workers of the world, including ourselves, in whatever way we contribute to the work force.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.