The history of Labor Day

Today is Labor Day. A day for every man and woman in the United States to take some time off, sip some ice tea, and spend time with friends and family. The tradition began with coordinated unpaid day off of work and became a part of the national scene under political pressure and a mid-term election in 1894.

The work environment of the late 19th century heavily favored the employer. The Pullman Palace Car Company company was one example of a company where you assumed not just a job, but a lifestyle. Founder and CEO George Pullman created the town of Pullman in Illinois, the first planned industrial town in the country, in what is now south Chicago. All residents of Pullman, Illinois worked for the Pullman company, had their paychecks deposited into the Pullman bank, bought goods only from Pullman-owned stores, and had their rent for their Pullman-owned homes automatically deducted from their weekly paychecks. Assembly and craft workers lived in row houses, managers lived in Victorians, and George Pullman lived in the penthouse of a luxury hotel created for visiting customers, suppliers, and salesmen. The depression of the early 1890s popped the railroad bubble and a quarter of the railroad companies in the United States went bankrupt. The Pullman company was forces to layoff hundreds of employees and cut wages for the remaining employees but the company did not adjust its rent for company-owned housing or product prices at company-owned stores in correlation with the local and national depression. Employees walked out, and people across the nation boycotted riding trains with Pullman cars, led by the efforts of Eugene Debs at the American Railway Union and sympathy strikes across the country. 12,000 federal troops were sent in to contain the 50,000 striking workers, troops fired on protesters, union organizers were arrested, and mayhem erupted.

The Pullman strike occurred two years after Irishman Hugh O’Donnell led a strike at Carnegie Steel Works’ Homestead plant. Management at Carnegie Steel hired a private police force of Pinkerton detectives and closed the mill, locking out 3,800 existing workers while hiring new workers at lower wages, and imposed 12-hour workdays.

The Knights of Labor, a labor union with a national agenda at the time, had a convention and a parade in New York City on the first weekend of September. Many workers would take an unpaid day off work the first Monday of September and march for labor rights and declare their sympathy for the efforts of the Knights of Labor. Irishman Matthew Maguire organized a campaign for a national labor day, taking advantage of the hot mid-term political elections of 1894. President Grover Cleveland of the Democratic party created Labor Day in an attempt to reconcile his actions and win favor for his party.

It took a lot of effort and events to create a national holiday for the average worker. I hope you are enjoying your day off from work.

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Commentary on "The history of Labor Day":

  1. Ian Kennedy on wrote:

    Thanks for this bit of history. My 6 year old son stumped me. The conversation this morning went like this:

    Dad, what’s “Labor” mean?
    It means “to work” Tyler.
    Dad, why do you have a day off from work on, “to work” day?

  2. Jackson West on wrote:

    Remember that it’s all in the context of the larger struggle for the eight-hour workday, the two-day weekend, worker safety and health and all the other struggles by labor against industrial capital between 1870 and 1930. The Knights of Labor are seen in some circles as a compromise group, using nationalist rhetoric and ‘nativist’ sentiments to defend themselves against accusations of socialism, communism or anarcho-syndicalism.

    By 1894, May Day was widely celebrated in America by the’internationalist’ labor movement, and among socialists, Labor Day has always been viewed with some skepticism.