Which strike led to Labor Day becoming a national holiday?
Labor Day is held on the first monday in September every year, giving workers a well-deserved day off, but few know the violent origin of the national holiday.
Labor Day is now seen an annual celebration of workers’ rights and a reason for a day away from the office to spend time with friends and family, but the holiday’s roots come from a fatal strike in the 1800s.
A heavy-handed response to a 19th century strike of railroad workers left around 30 people dead and left President Grover Cleveland worried that he had alienated a significant proportion of the electorate. Here’s how Labor Day became a national holiday in the United States…
The origins of Labor Day
The working conditions for 19th century Americans were a far-cry from what is allowed today. Many worked gruelling 12-hour days, seven days a week, and did so in physically demanding and dangerous conditions.
With no minimum wage, labor jobs were often very poorly paid and children were required to find work in factories and on farms to boost the household income. The industrial revolution had made the workplace more demanding but workers were not adequately remunerated, so a series of parades were held to call for greater rights.
This Labor Day weekend, let us remember the sacrifices of those who fought to improve the lives of working families, and recommit to building back a powerful labor movement. pic.twitter.com/EZ6yxziFD9— Robert Reich (@RBReich) September 4, 2021
A march from New York’s City Hall to a giant picnic at an uptown park on 5 September 1882 was reported as “Working Men on Parade” by the New York Times and 10,000 people are said to have been involved in the demonstration.
A series of similar parades and marches happened across the country but, despite states and municipalities adopting legislation to officially recognise Labor Day, as New York did in 1887, it was not yet a national holiday.
Pullman strike sparks official recognition of Labor Day
The federal government was reluctant to officially sanction Labor Day as a national holiday for fear that it would further embolden the labor movement. However that changed in 1894 when the Pullman strike created a need to appease the working class.
The Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured railroad sleeper cars used all across the US. When company owner, George Pullman, slashed workers’ wages without lowering the housing prices in his company town in Chicago, many workers went on strike.
Many of the unhappy workers were swiftly fired by Pullman, leading labor activist Eugene V. Debs to call for the American Railway Union (ARU) to strike. This saw tens of thousands of workers walk out of factories, a disaster for the nation which brought freight and passenger traffic to a halt.
The newly restored Pullman National Monument, which honors a rich slice of railroad history with strong Union Pacific ties, will open Labor Day Weekend in Chicago. UP is a proud supporter of the Pullman National Monument and the @NationalParkFdn. https://t.co/J68swy44a2— Union Pacific (@UnionPacific) September 3, 2021
In response to the strike, President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago to enforce an injunction on the striking workers. With the arrival of the troops a section of the protestors turned violent and destroyed hundreds of railroad cars in South Chicago.
On 7 July 1894, National Guardsmen began firing into the crowds and killed 30 people, while leaving many more seriously wounded.
Troops withdrew from Chicago on 20 July and Cleveland hailed the intervention as a success, rounding up and imprisoning Debs and many other ARU leaders. But although the strike had been ended, Cleveland had made enemies of the powerful labor unions and alienated working class voters. In order to restore some popularity with workers, Cleveland signed a bill into law on 28 June 1894 which made Labor Day a national holiday.
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