What is Labor Day and what does it mean?
Do you get weekends off work? Lunch breaks? Paid vacation? An eight-hour work day? Social security? If you said “yes” to any of these questions, you can thank labor unions and the U.S. labor movement for it. Many of the most basic benefits we enjoy at our jobs today were the result of years of hard-fought battles and the legislation they inspired. On the first Monday in September, we take the day off to celebrate Labor Day and reflect on the American worker’s contributions to our country.
When is Labor Day 2019?
Labor day is celebrated on the first Monday in September, which mean the date varies year by year. In 2019, however, it will be celebrated on Monday, September 2. Canada celebrates Labor day (or Labour day, as they call it) on the same date.
Labor Day origins
There’s disagreement over how the holiday began. One versions is set in September 1882 with the Knights of Labor, the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations at the time. In the context of a General Assembly held by the Knights in New York City, a public parade of various labor organizations was held on September 5th by the fledgling Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York. Subsequently, CLU Secretary Matthew Maguire proposed that a national Labor Day holiday be held on the first Monday of each September to mark this successful public demonstration.
In another version, Labor Day in September was proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a vice president of the American Federation of Labor. In spring 1882, McGuire reportedly proposed a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to the CLU, which would begin with a street parade of organized labor solidarity and end with a picnic fundraiser for local unions. McGuire suggested the first Monday in September as an ideal date for Labor Day because the weather is great at that time of year, and it falls in between July 4th and Thanksgiving.
On May 1, 1886—at a time when most American laborers worked 18 or even 20 hours a day—tens of thousands of workers protested in cities all across the US to demand an eight-hour workday. Police in Chicago attacked both those peaceful protests and a workers planning meeting two days later, randomly beating and shooting at the planning group and killing six.
When outraged Chicagoans attended an initially peaceful protest the next evening in Haymarket Square, police advanced on the crowd again. Someone who was never identified exploded a bomb that killed a police officer, leading cops to open fire on protesters and provoke violence that led to the deaths of about a dozen workers and police.
The Pullman Strike
Ironically, Chicago was also the setting for the bloody Pullman strike of 1894, which catalyzed the establishment of an official Labor Day holiday in the U.S. on the first Monday of September.
The strike happened in May in the company town of Pullman, Chicago, a factory location established by luxury rail car manufacturer the Pullman Company. The inequality of the town was more than apparent. Company owner George Pullman lived in a mansion while most laborers stayed in barracks-style dormitories. When a nationwide depression struck in 1893, Pullman decided to cut costs the way a lot of executives at the time did—by lowering wages by almost 30% while he kept rent on the dormitories he leased to his workers at pre-depression levels.
These conditions ultimately led workers to strike on May 11, 1894, receiving support from the nationwide American Railroad Union (ARU), which declared that ARU members would no longer work on trains that included Pullman cars. That national boycott would end up bringing the railroads west of Chicago to a standstill and led to 125,000 workers across 29 railroad companies to quit their jobs rather than break the boycott.
When the Chicago railroad companies hired strikebreakers as replacements, strikers also took various actions to stop the trains. The General Managers Association, which represented local railroad companies, countered by inducing U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad attorney, to intervene. Indianapolis federal courts granted Olney an injunction against the strike, a moved that allowed President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops to break it up.
A few days later, Cleveland realized that he had to act quickly to appease the country’s increasingly agitated labor movement. But he didn’t want to commemorate the Haymarket incident with a May holiday that would invoke radical worker sentiment. So Cleveland harkened back to the first established September 1882 holiday and signed into law that Labor Day in the US would be celebrated on the first Monday in September.
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Labor Day Activities
Read up on the history of Labor Day
Labor Day has a rich history that directly impacts the working conditions we experience today. So in between rounds of BBQ at your Labor Day celebration, take the time to read a book or article about the U.S. labor movement and its contribution to our country's current work culture.
Buy an American-made product
When you're doing your Labor Day shopping, take the time to read the labels. Consider buying products that say "Made in the USA" to show your support for American laborers.
Watch a movie about unions
In all likelihood, you'll get the day off for Labor Day. What better way to relax than to stretch out on the couch and watch a movie about the American labor movement? There are tons of union-themed movies to choose from.
Why We Love Labor Day
We're hard workers—we deserve the day off
Statistics show that Americans work longer hours than the majority of other countries—137 more hours per year than Japan, 260 more per year than the UK, and 499 more than France. And our productivity is high—400% higher than it was in 1950, to be exact. So we totally deserve that day off.
It's one last chance to grill out
Labor Day is widely considered to be the unofficial last day of summer. Before the air turns cold and the leaves start to fall, it's our last chance to grill some steaks and wear shorts.
It's the reason we can say TGIF
Labor Day is a time to celebrate the benefits we enjoy at our jobs—including weekends off. The concept of American workers taking days off dates back to 1791, when a group of carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike to demand a shorter work week (10-hour days, to be exact). It wasn't until 1836 that workers started demanding eight-hour work days.