Today is Labor Day, a welcome reprieve for many from work at the end of summer that provides an opportunity to enjoy parades, picnics, and barbecues.
During the days leading up to America’s entrance into the second world war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave one of the more famous Labor Day speeches, encouraging the nation to work hard to “crush Hitler and his Nazi forces.”
He continued, explaining, “American workers, American farmers, American businessmen, American church people — all of us together — have the great responsibility and the great privilege of laboring to build a democratic world on enduring foundations.”
The origins of the holiday, however, stretch back to the Gilded Age of American history in the 1870s and 1880s. Mass industrialization rapidly changed the landscape of the nation’s economic makeup.
Despite increases in national prosperity, many workers viewed the system as exploitive and unfair, leading to a series of violent strikes and the rise of labor unions. Instances such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886, and many more reflected a deep dissatisfaction in the working class.
During this time of upheaval, labor movement leaders, such as Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire, called for a day celebrating workers. Their efforts culminated in the Central Labor Union planning the first Labor Day parade in New York City on September 5, 1882.
Only 12 years later, nearly two dozen states had instituted the holiday. However, it did not become a federal holiday until President Grover Cleveland signed legislation in 1894 after the Pullman Strike.
While many of the labor strikes were peaceful, some notable ones turned violent and bloody, such as Chicago’s Pullman Strike. Led by the socialist Eugene V. Debs, nearly 250,000 railroad workers across 27 states boycotted trains carrying cars built by George Pullman.
President Grover Cleveland ordered elements of the army to break up the strike after a court injunction ruled that the strike leaders such as Debs had illegally conspired to prevent the transportation of mail and interstate commerce.
Cleveland explained that he employed the military to protect the U.S.’s property and remove “obstructions to the United States mails.” He warned “all persons engaged in or in any way connected with such unlawful obstructions, combinations, and assemblages to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.”
However, when troops arrived, conflict occurred; several dozen people were killed, and dozens more were injured. Hundreds of train cars were destroyed, and some $80 million in property was damaged ($2.76 billion in today’s value).
The strike was broken, and Debs was imprisoned, but tensions remained high across the country. Congress unanimously passed the legislation necessary to make Labor Day a holiday as a gesture of peace, and Cleveland signed the law shortly after the Pullman Strike ended.
Today, however, the Labor Day holiday is not defined by massive strikes or government military intervention. Instead, families have the opportunity to take a break from work and enjoy the fruits of their labor.