What is the point of Labor Day? In the United States, we commonly think of it as the end of Summer. Throw your last party, make your final trip to the beach, and be at work or in class Tuesday morning. Don’t forget to buy your books and coats, mother nature’s about to crank up the freezer. We often overlook the actual origins of the holiday, dating back over a century to the 1700s for the US. Variations on the holiday elsewhere in the world fall on different dates, but share the celebration of worker’s rights.
The Labor Movement
Before the 19th century, there weren’t really workers’ rights or any regulations requiring worker safety. There wasn’t a widespread concept of overtime pay, no job site safety, and if the boss said ‘you’re fired because a horse looked at me funny’, there were no laws protecting your employment. It wasn’t a great situation for workers, and it was about to get worse.
The Industrial Revolution brought machines into the equation. Factories now had moving parts. If someone slipped or didn’t pay attention, the machinery could remove a finger, hand, arm, or head without ever stopping. It was possible to go to work, lose an arm, and simply be fired for not showing up the next day while you recovered. There were kids working in factories instead of playing or going to school. Just to add insult to injury, there was no minimum wage. An employer could pay in pennies per day.
This had to change, but it was more than just one person could pull off. If you started a shouting match with the boss, you were simply fired. The gears of business rolled on and the next poor sap on the street got a job. There was a problem however. A business couldn’t replace the entire work force. If everyone walked out of the factories, it would take weeks to hire and train new workers, let alone regain lost proficiency. On top of that, if they all did leave, and made their complaints widespread, who would buy from or work for the offending business?
Alone, a worker was powerless. Together, the workers and the community however, could negotiate with an employer. This formed the foundation of a Union. The collective workers could negotiate for better pay, better safety, and when needed, all but siege their state and federal representatives with complaints and demands for new laws.
The Labor Movement wouldn’t get an actual holiday until the end of the 19th century. New York’s Knights of Labor held a parade in New York City in September of 1882 to coincide with their General Assembly. Various labor groups, unions, marched in this first celebration. There is some debate as to whether it was an original idea or whether it was inspired and borrowed from the Canadian version of the holiday. In the years to follow, thirty states would make it an official holiday, starting with Oregon in 1887. It would take a tragedy to make it a national holiday.
To make a complex story short, the workers at the Pullman Company, manufacturers of railway cars, faced wage cuts, layoffs, and were forced to pay expensive rent and utility costs to live in the Pullman-owned company town. They went on strike, calling for a massive boycott of all railways using Pullman cars. Other unions and workers joined in the strike. Riots broke out. In many places, the rail system ceased to work as protest blocked the tracks or destroyed critical infrastructure. Attorney General Richard Olney, still on a railroad ‘retainer’, arranged for a court order to break the strike. The strikers continued anyway. The US Marshals and Army were sent in to break up the strike, things got ugly, people died. By the time the dust settled, the Pullman company was forced to cede control of all property in the company town.
Congress created Labor Day as a national holiday as part of efforts to reconcile with the striking workers. The scale and scope of the protests and riots is hard to grasp today. We think of a strike as being a one-place affair. You see workers with signs in front of a factory and figure that’s where it starts and ends. This was a nation wide, crippling event that threatened to cut off all rail based services, when rail was the only real way to cross the country.
Thanks to these events, we have better work environments, better pay, and better lives. We can look at Labor Day now, as a celebration of our freedoms and protections, and of our ability to enjoy the summer and our leisure time.