Labor Day, What’s it about!

Authored: Destinee Wallace             readandspeakout                 September2022

Photo by Element5 Digital:

You breathe a sigh of relief as you enjoy your day off for Labor Day. What does it mean? Just another federal holiday, well not so much, it took a lot of lives and dedication to achieve our workers’ rights.  This holiday touches almost all Americans because you have held a job, right?

In the 19th century started change, an ongoing battle for workers’ rights. A common work day consisted of 12-hr shifts, 7 days a week, with no days off. Breaks were minimal, or not at all, and conditions were unsafe, unsanitary, and debilitating. Though restricted, it was common to find 5 and 6-year-olds working in factories, mills, and mines. They didn’t make half of what adults did.

In the 18th century, with the start of the Industrial Revolution, Americans started demanding more rights. The Industrial Revolution was facilitated by the transcontinental railroad, the cotton gin, electricity, and other inventions changing society forever.  Many strikes and riots took place, and that September 5, 1882, led a parade in the lower part of Manhattan, New York City, of 10,000-20,000 workingmen. People from all job types and situations marched together for equal work rights. The event was organized by: New York City’s Labor Union.

A little over a decade later would see one of the deadliest riots, the Pullman Strike. Federal troops in Chicago brutally crushed a railroad strike and Pullman sleeping car company workers. It would consume 30 lives. Cleveland finally signed a law into legislation creating the National Labor Day holiday in 1894.

May 4, 1886, the Haymarket riot, or incident, was considered a setback to the labor movement. Near Chicago’s Haymarket square started disorder and during the riot, someone threw a bomb at the police causing extreme damage. Eight people were killed that day during the violence. At random, eight activists were picked up for the crime and even though there was hardly any evidence, they were found guilty and executed.

May 1, Worker’s Day, was celebrated, but the government had no intention of making it a holiday. Riots and strikes became normal. Everyone wanted fair compensation and an 8-hour work day. Since, New York’s 1882 parade, other states followed suit, and Oregon in 1887, officially made it a holiday. Then 22 states made similar legislation by 1893.

In 1894 a recession hit and George Pullman laid off countless employees, then cut the remaining workers’ wages. This cut was not small, but by a whopping 30% and workers were angry. Further insult was after the cut he refused to lower rent or store prices in Pullman, Illinois, where most of his workers lived.

The Pullman railway workers walked out in May 1894 and a month later the American Railway Union also did a sympathy boycott of all Pullman sleeper cars. This effectively stopped all commerce and rail traffic in 27 states, from Chicago to the West Coast. This drove the GMA to have to get federal help in shutting down the strike.

On June 23, in Blue Island, Illinois, during a speech fires were set to nearby buildings, attached to a locomotive was a US mail truck, and it was derailed. Those incidents were enough to get a federal injunction, prohibiting main union members from having any control over the riots. When Cleveland released the federal troops to control the riots, this turned bloody and a count of 30 people died. As this battle waged, the Federal holiday was signed by Cleveland. The first Monday of September, a day for workers, their rights, and their sacrifices.

Next year, on Labor Day, give thanks for the ability to be an American worker. Give thanks that you didn’t slave in a mine at 5 or 6 years old. Be thankful that it’s an option and not a requirement to work a 12-hour shift. Be thankful that your employer, if in a bind, can’t cut your wages to nothing. Remain thankful to all those who sacrificed, so you can be paid fairly, and treated right, in safe working conditions.

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2 responses to “Labor Day, What’s it about!”

  1. Great story! I never learned anything about this in school. Very well written and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen, unfortunately things that show the US in a controversial light, seem to be not discussed. Hopefully, that will change in the future.


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