You may be bummed out that summer is coming to an end, but there's still one three-day weekend left to help ease you into the hustle and bustle of the fall — Labor Day. While your experience with the holiday may revolve around cookouts and barbecues, the actual history of Labor Day is a lot more fascinating (and bloody) than your average Monday off.
Now an annual weekend filled with final beach days, end-of-summer celebrations, and students' last hurrahs before going back to school, Labor Day has been a part of American history for more than 130 years. Born out of the labor movement of the late 19th century, the holiday didn't start out as an extended weekend and some paid time off. It began as a collective effort of workers in major cities like Chicago and New York demanding safer conditions, better pay, fewer hours, and an all around fairer workplace.
While you're eating hamburgers and hot dogs and enjoying that last bit of summer sun this three-day weekend, don't forget about the importance of the history of Labor day that not only gave you the ability to day drink on a Monday afternoon, but the guaranteed rights you have as a working person. Here are eight things you should remember.
1. Labor Day was a product of the Industrial Revolution and the labor movement.
During the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing business was booming and workers flocked to cities to find factory work. Thrilled to be employed and terrified to lose their jobs, laborers often found themselves working long hours — an average of 12 a day — for measly wages. Boys and girls as young as five and six were used as child laborers, and both adults and kids found themselves working in dirty, dangerous settings
Fed up with unfair conditions, industrial workers in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York got together to fight for their common interests, and thus the labor movement was born. In addition to demanding better wages, hours, and working conditions, the labor movement also began to call for an official holiday in its name.
2. Before there were Labor Day cookouts, parties, and parades, there were strikes, rallies, and marches.
Labor Day wasn't born out of celebration, but rather protest. Workers didn't get together after their 12-hour workdays to plan a parade down main street, but rather a protest straight to city hall. Before people began setting up their lawn chairs and inviting their neighbors over for hamburgers and hot dogs, unions went on strike, held rallies, and demanded their voices were heard, no matter the cost. You get the picture.
By the 1880s, labor unions all over the country were rallying together to try and change the way the American workforce was treated. From the success of one of the earliest railroad strikes in 1885 to the devastation of the Haymarket riot of 1886, labor unions were getting serious about their demands, and it became clear that they were not a voice that would go unheard.
3. The first Labor Day was in New York City in 1882.
On Monday, Sept. 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City. More than 10,000 workers took to the streets and marched from City Hall all the way to Union Square. Elsewhere in the city, people gathered for picnics, concerts, and speeches, and throughout the country, laborers looked to New York as an example of what to do next.
4. Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894.
By 1894, 30 states recognized Labor Day as a holiday, but President Grover Cleveland made it official when he signed a bill that made Labor Day a federal holiday. Don't think it was out of the kindness of his heart, though. After trying — and failing, with disastrous and deadly results — to squash the 1894 Pullman railroad strike, Cleveland and Congress agreed to make Labor Day a federal holiday. A gesture of peace and goodwill to the labor unions, the new law couldn't save Cleveland's reputation, and he lost the following election.
5. Canada did it first.
In 1872, a decade before the first U.S. Labor Day celebration, thousands of workers in Ottawa and Toronto marched in protest of better working conditions and the legalization of labor unions. That same year, the law that previously made unions illegal was repealed, and every year following, Canada honored the victory of its workers by celebrating Labor Day.
In 1882, an American union official, Peter J. McGuire, was invited to Canada's labor celebration. He found the event to be so inspiring and powerful, he returned to the states and organized the first Labor Day parade in New York.
6. The official founder is unknown.
Although Peter McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was a driving power behind the first celebration of the holiday in New York, his claim to Labor Day fame is still under question. Another member of the labor movement, Matthew Maguire, the secretary of the Central Labor Union, was quoted saying that laborers, "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold," deserve a day of their own. Whose idea was it first? We may never know.
7. By the 1950s, more than one-third of all labor forces were in unions.
In the 50 years following the federalization of Labor Day, American worker unions grew and expanded all over the country. From factories to railways, public service workers to teachers, 30 percent of American workers belonged to unions — organizations that strove to protect them, help them, and guaranteed their working rights.
After the 1950s, however, when industrial work slowed and factories across the country closed, union membership rates began to drop rapidly. The unions shrunk, but the holiday stayed.
8. Today, only one in 10 workers are in a union.
If you've never quite understood the depth and importance of Labor Day, don't beat yourself up too much. In the last few decades, Labor Day has strayed away from strikes, rallies, and marches, and moved to a quiet holiday focused on celebration and relaxation. Why? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.1 percent — roughly one in 10 — of employees in the U.S. are members of a union.
Just because Labor Day doesn't carry the rally cry that it used to, doesn't mean you should forget what it stands for: the value of the hard work of everyday Americans, and their right to a good and decent life. Try and remember that while you're sipping an ice cold drink during your extended weekend.
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