5 Facts About Labor Day and the American Working Class

Construction Workers
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Labor Day, like so many American holidays, is often observed with parades, barbecues and a day off of work. For many, friends and family gatherings are hallmarks of this summer's end holiday, but amidst the Labor Day sales and the clamor to get in a final long weekend, we often forget to observe the meaning behind the holiday. So, what is Labor Day really about?

As the name suggests, Labor Day commemorates, well, the laborer. Specifically, the holiday recollects a decades-long struggle for bread, dignity and rights – a struggle in which many people were imprisoned or killed for their efforts. Ultimately, this struggle led to creations that we often take for granted today, like the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, and health benefits. These achievements, and the sacrifices that led to them, are what Labor Day is truly meant to honor.

In memory of the oft faceless working class heroes who fought, at great expense to themselves, that we might enjoy better working conditions today, we look back at these facts about the history of the holiday and the American labor movement.

Labor Day is a tribute to the American labor movement

Labor Day is a tribute to the American labor movement
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The origins of Labor Day are anything but celebratory. Labor Day traces its roots back to September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers organized by the Central Labor Union marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. Their demand? A "workingmen's holiday."

At that time, the height of the Industrial Era, manufacturing was quickly becoming the backbone of the national economy, flipping the old agrarian society on its head in favor of a wage-labor market. Back then the average worker often toiled for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, just to secure a basic standard of living. Child labor was commonplace and safe working conditions were rare. The labor movement arose as a response to these realities.

Strikes and demonstrations became central to the labor movement

Strikes and demonstrations became central to the labor movement
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The types of rallies and strikes featured on that very first labor day became frequent and widespread during the Industrial Era. Unions, which made up the core of the labor movement, used these tactics – as well as general workplace organizing – as a way to gain concessions in regard to hours, wages, and working conditions from their employers. Sometimes the clashes -- and subsequent repression -- grew notoriously violent.

The Haymarket Affair is one monumental example of how high the stakes could be. On May 4, 1886, workers gathered in Chicago to protest the police killing of a striking worker at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company the day before. As police attempted to break up the demonstration, a bomb was thrown by a (still) unknown party; in response, the police opened fire on the crowd. In the immediate aftermath a dozen were dead and about 100 injured. The incident led to further repression against the labor movement and immigrants, including the conviction of "the Chicago Eight," four of whom were executed and one of whom committed suicide in prison. The remaining three were later granted full pardons by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who felt the eight defendants were not granted a fair trial.

Labor Day was not officially recognized until 1894

Labor Day was not officially recognized until 1894
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While no one is exactly sure of who first suggested the workingmen's holiday, two people are at the center of the discussion. The United States Department of Labor credits both Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., for initially proposing the idea.

However, like so many of the achievements of the labor movement, Labor Day is, at its core, the product of a collective effort. It was not until 1894, 12 years after the Union Square protest, that President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law designating the first Monday in September, Labor Day. Cleveland's motivations were not so sanguine, however. Several states had already passed legislation by that time recognizing the holiday, but Cleveland signed the measure into law primarily as a way to pacify unrest roused by the federal government's support for strike breaking during the Pullman Strike.

The Pullman Strike and boycott was organized as a response to wage cutting by the Pullman Palace Car Company, meanwhile demanding the same amount of rent from workers living in the company town of Pullman. The strike, organized by the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs, quickly ballooned from a handful of workers in May to more than 125,000 by July, crippling the Pullman rail lines. Incensed by the halting of U.S. Mail, the federal government began sending federal troops under the auspices of the Sherman Anti-trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act (and against the wishes of Governor John Peter Altgeld) and ultimately helped to break the strike.

Labor Day celebrates more than 150 million workers today

Labor Day celebrates more than 150 million workers today
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There are roughly 153.5 million people that make up the U.S. work force, according to July 2017 estimates from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Today, these workers can credit common protections like the minimum wage, health benefits and 40-hour work weeks to the labor movement that started it all. Safety regulations like those enacted by OSHA and the end of child labor are also watershed achievements of the labor movement.

Union participation rates have drastically declined since the hey-day of the labor movement, however. In the 1950s, the labor movement was still going strong and roughly one-third of Americans belonged to a union. By 1983, that number was down to 20.1 percent. According to the BLS, just 10.7 percent of all workers were unionized in 2016. For the private sector, the number was in the single digits at 6.4 percent, compared with 16.8 percent in 1983.

Labor Day is still traditionally observed by workers today

Labor Day is still traditionally observed by workers today
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Labor Day may have started as a way to recognize workers, but for most Americans it has turned into an unofficial celebration of the end of summer as well. The holiday not only signals the start of the transition to fall, but it also often coincides with the start of the school year.

Although the focus on the worker, wages and working conditions has waned when compared with the years that mark the genesis of Labor Day, the significance remains for the American labor movement. Today, chapters of the International Worker's of the World still mark the occasion with solidarity rallies. And with a turbulent - sometimes violent - history in its wake, Labor Day is still a solemn event for those steeped in the history of the American working class.