September 02, 2018
So long summer of 2018.
You sizzled us, you soaked us, you satiated us. And like every other summer season, your sprint to Monday – Labor Day – seemed a blur.
Why we celebrate Labor Day, a holiday that had a violent start
For many, Labor Day is all about capturing that last blast at the beach, backyard barbecues, school retail bonanzas and the grudging realization that sun-soaked play days are no more.
But the day has a deeper meaning and marks a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history — and it had a pretty violent start.
In the late 1800s, the state of labor was grim as U.S. workers toiled under bleak conditions: 12 or more hour workdays; hazardous work environments; meager pay. Children, some as young as 5, were often fixtures at plants and factories.
The dismal livelihoods fueled the formation of the country’s first labor unions, which began to organize strikes and protests and pushed employers for better hours and pay. Many of the rallies turned violent.
Why we celebrate Labor Day, a holiday that had a violent start
On Sept. 5, 1882 — a Tuesday — 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in a parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City as a tribute to American workers. Organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, It was the country’s first unofficial Labor Day parade. Three years later, some city ordinances marked the first government recognition, and legislation soon followed in a number of states.
Then came May 11, 1894, and a strike that shook an Illinois town founded by George Pullman, an engineer and industrialist who created the railroad sleeping car. The community, located on the Southside of Chicago, was designed as a “company town” in which most of the factory workers who built Pullman cars lived.
When wage cuts hit, 4,000 workers staged a strike that pitted the American Railway Union vs. the Pullman Company and the federal government. The strike and boycott against trains triggered a nationwide transportation nightmare for freight and passenger traffic.
At its peak, the strike involved about 250,000 workers in more than 25 states. Riots broke out in many cities; President Grover Cleveland called in Army troops to break the strikers; more than a dozen people were killed in the unrest.
After the turbulence, Congress, at the urging of Cleveland in an overture to the labor movement, passed an act on June 28, 1894, making the first Monday in September “Labor Day.” It was now a legal holiday.
In the coming decades, the day took root in American culture as the "unofficial end of summer" and is marked by parades, picnics and family/friend time. Post offices, banks, courts, federal and state offices are shuttered.
Some herald the new beginnings that dot the post-Labor Day months – the NFL in full swing, election season in high gear, the first frost, fall's colors.
But for those mourning another summer that slipped from sight, start the countdown clock: Memorial Day is 267 days away.
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