For many, the first Monday in September marks the end of summer. It’s the last push to barbecue, swim, and enjoy the sun before cold weather sinks in. But why do we really celebrate Labor Day? Where did it come from? How did it come to pass?
At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States the average American worked 12+ hour days and seven days a week in order to earn a basic living. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions. Soon, labor unions grew more prominent and vocal, and began organizing strikes and rallies protesting hours and pay. On September 5, 1882 over 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
Despite their unrest, conditions didn’t get better. In 1893 during a nationwide economic recession, George Pullman laid off hundreds of employees and cut wages by 25 percent for many of the remaining workers at his railroad sleeping car company. He also refused to lower rents or store prices in the company town where many of his employees lived. This caused workers to strike once again, ultimately halting all rail traffic and commerce in 27 states.
In the middle of the crisis, on June 28, 1894, Pres. Grover Cleveland and Congress officially made Labor Day a national holiday. This was a conciliatory gesture to appease American workers and settle the massive unrest with the American labor movement – giving the American people an extra day that they didn’t have to work.
Of course it still took many years, and an immense amount of dedication, work and patience, to improve things materially for the nation’s growing employee populations. For example, it wasn’t until the Adamson Act passed on September 3, 1916 that the modern eight-hour work day was established for railway workers across the United States. This marked a significant win in a struggle that is still very much alive today.
If you are an employee, celebrate Labor Day today by putting your feet up and relaxing. Do the things you enjoy most and let yourself have the day off. After all of your hard work, you deserve it!