The Meaning And Origin of Labor Day

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September 5, 2016 by Chris Kite

Today is Labor Day in the United States and in Canada. To most it is a holiday to celebrate the last gasp of summer. It’s an opportunity to have picnics, bar-be-ques, and spend some more time outside before summer gives up and cold weather comes in.

I suspect very few Americans understand the origin or significance of the holiday and that it is actually a celebration of labor, labor unions, and labor’s huge contributions to America. Prior to it becoming a national holiday, it was celebrated in some thirty US states and in Canada.

In Canada, it’s origins started in December 1872 when the Toronto Typographical Union started a strike to try to get a 58 hour work week. That’s right. They were fighting to get the work week reduced to 58 hours! It became a legal national holiday in Canada in July 1894.

In the United States, it started around the same time. American Peter McGuire, the head of the American Federation of Labor had spoken at a Canadian organization of labor and brought the idea back to the United States for a parade on September 5, 1882.

It slowly became more accepted and was adopting by thirty states by 1894. It wasn’t yet recognized as a national holiday but the Pullman Workers went on Strike earlier in 1894and that would play a major role in establishment of a national holiday. Pullman workers were upset that their pay had been cut. You see, they lived in a company town, built and owned by The Pullman Company and their rents and utilities remained priced the same, even though their earnings were reduced.

Their strike was not well received by the railroads, and not wanting to give labor too much power, railroads did everything they could to break the strike. At times, the strike turned destructive and violent and in response, United States Attorney General Richard Olney, still receiving a $10,000 retainer from the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (versus his $8,000 salary as Attorney General) obtained an injunction in federal court to bar union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers return to work and end their activities or be fired. (So much for the revolving door of big corporations and government being something new!) As might be expected, labor ignored the injunction. US Marshals and the United States Army were called in to break the strike and get mail moving on the railroads again. This resulted in the deaths of 30 strikers and injury of 57 more.

Grover Cleveland, eager to improve his standing with labor after the Pullman Strike debacle, supported the establishment of a national labor holiday the first Monday in September.

As originally intended, Labor Day is a celebration of the contributions of labor and labor unions to our great country. It was brought about because of the hard work of labor and the price organized laborers paid in their attempts to try to get a fair work environment. No doubt, many anti-union, anti-labor conservatives are blindly celebrating this holiday and enjoying their last weekend of summer without regard to the irony of its origins. I doubt many are thanking labor unions for the national holiday or what eventually became a 40 hour work week.

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