Labor Day will soon be upon us, and the start of a three-day weekend. No one ever complains about having so many days off in a row, but do we ever stop to think of whom to thank for it?
In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. The form for the celebration of Labor Day was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday: A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations”, followed by a festival for the workers and their families. Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday on February 21, 1887. By 1894 only thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day.
In the summer of 1894 the nation witnessed a national railroad workers strike. The Pullman Strike pitted the American Railway against the Pullman Company and the federal government under President Grover Cleveland. The strike and boycott shut down much of the nation’s freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit Michigan. The conflict began in Pullman Chicago on May 11 when nearly 4,000 factory employees of the Pullman Company began a strike in response to recent reductions in wages.
The union called a massive boycott against all trains that carried a car made in the factory owned by industrialist George Pullman. At its peak the strike involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states. Thirty people were killed in response to riots and sabotage that caused $80 million in damages. The federal government secured a federal court injunction against the union ordering them to stop interfering with trains that carried mail cars. After the strikers refused, President Cleveland ordered in the Army to stop the strikers from obstructing the trains. Violence broke out in many cities, and eventually the strike collapsed. Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military during the conflict, Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday; President Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike, and we have been observing it ever since.
Later, in order to take advantage of large numbers of potential customers free to shop, Labor Day has become an important sale weekend for many retailers in the United States. Some retailers claim it is one of the largest sale dates of the year, second only to Black Friday. Ironically, because of the importance of the sale weekend, some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but also work longer hours.
It also began to be seen as the last day of summer as schools recognized Labor Day as the perfect time to resume classes after the summer break. The weekend also marks the beginning of the NFL and College football seasons. It has become a very important time in American culture.
As you sit around on your boat on Saturday, go to church and then catch the big game on Sunday, then take one more day still and relax at the barbeque on Monday, remember the history of Labor Day. It has become more to American culture than the last day that it’s fashionable to wear white.