The first Monday in September is Labor Day and many of us look forward to it mostly because it is a guaranteed three day weekend. But why do have this day in September off? Let’s look at the history of Labor Day in the United States to get a better understanding of what this holiday actually means.
The exact origin of Labor Day is still up for debate. Some believe that Michael Maguire of the Central Labor Union in New York suggested it first, but others claim the idea came from Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor.
In either case, Canada was already honoring a Labor Day celebration which may have sparked the notion for workers in the United States. Between 1887 and 1894, several states incorporated their own Labor Day celebrations into their calendars with Oregon being the first. Thirty total states eventually adopted their own holidays before it was recognized federally.
The Pullman Strike sparked a new debate in the U.S. over labor. After a reduction in wages, 4,000 factory workers for the Pullman Company in Chicago went on strike on May 11th of 1894. Employees of Pullman lived in a company town designed and run by the corporation. When wages were reduced, the company did not lower rent which caused significant financial problems for the laborers in the town.
Employees of Pullman were not unionized, however, the American Railway Union backed the workers and called for a boycott of the Pullman business. It affected all rail lines west of Detroit, Michigan and effectively stopped transportation and freight. A federal injunction was passed to stop the boycotts, but the strikers refused and President Grover Cleveland ordered the army to step in. Violence then escalated and eventually the strike collapsed.
Just four days after the end of the strike, President Cleveland signed the national Labor Day into law. The date in September was chosen by the Central Labor Union of New York.
Now the holiday is seen by many people as the official end of summer and a return to school for many children throughout the nation. However, the deeper meaning regarding the labor movement in the United States of Labor Day is often lost in the midst of pot lucks and parades.
Achievements in the labor movement
The national Social Security Act was passed in 1935 as part of the New Deal legislation. Not only does it provide funds for individuals after retirement, but it also launched the nation’s unemployment program, provided aid for the surviving spouse and children of individuals who had died while working, as well as provided rehabilitation for the disabled.
The Civil Rights Act profoundly transformed workplaces throughout the United States. We often don’t recognize the impact the greater civil rights movement had on labor. Among its many protections, the Act prohibits discrimination by employers based on race, national origin, color, religion, or gender.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established a minimum wage, an 8 hour work day, overtime pay, and abolished child labor.
OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was established to protect workers from hazards in the workplace. OSHA provides guidelines for businesses that cover all manner of workplace safety concerns including hazardous materials, fire safety, falls, and other common office and warehouse incidents. It has reduced the number of workplace injuries significantly since being enacted in the 1970s.
Big acts such as disability insurance and OSHA have led to multiple advancements that allow individual workers to avoid workplace pain and remain safe and healthy.
So how can you celebrate Labor Day this year?
There is nothing at all wrong with a last summer vacation or a picnic at the park, but it can also be rewarding to do something meaningful to honor the individuals who fought hard to change the working culture in our country. Use this three-day weekend to reconnect with your friends and family and restore your work/life balance. You could also volunteer in your community to help others.
How do you plan to celebrate Labor Day this year?
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr