Labor Day facts about the American working class and labor movement

GM Auto Workers
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Labor Day is a much-welcomed holiday for many Americans, complete with a day off from work in the waning moments of summer. Amid the parades, barbecues and Labor Day sales, it can be easy to forget what Labor Day is and why we celebrate it at all. The meaning of the holiday, though, runs deep through American history.

Labor Day commemorates the efforts of generations of workers who fought for better conditions, fairer pay and influence over their work. The people who organized, unionized and marched for their rights often did so at great expense to themselves; many were fired, arrested or even killed for their efforts. However, out of their struggle, workers today enjoy the right to collective bargaining, a 40-hour work week, enforceable workplace protections and more.

It is in honor of these workers that we celebrate Labor Day today. Although the holiday has become more about leisure and celebrating the end of summer, these Labor Day facts prove that the establishment of the holiday and the movement that prompted it were no casual endeavors.

Labor Day is a tribute to the American labor movement

Auto Factory Workers
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The American labor movement, like its European counterparts, grew out of the need for workers to take collective action to protect their interests in the workplace. In the early days, protecting worker interests was sometimes literally a matter of life and death. In the early Industrial Era, it was common for workers to toil for more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Child labor was widespread and workplace sanitation and safety was often abysmal.

The origins of the American labor movement can be traced back to the colonial period, in which indentured servants, slaves, and sailors organized protests and rebellions. Some even formed organizations resembling early unions. However, the modern labor movement got its start in 1768 when New York-based tailors went on strike to protest a reduction in their wages. The strike would become a vital tool used by workers in all industries.

In 1794, a group of Philadelphia shoemakers organized the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, one of the first trade unions founded in the U.S. This kicked off a wave of local unionization in cities throughout the country.

The growth of the labor movement in the 19th century

19th Century Craftsmen
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Trade unionism grew and evolved drastically during the 19th century. Following the establishment of a local trade union at the city level, union members began linking their organizations to one another in a bid to increase their influence.

In 1827, the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations was created in Philadelphia. It was one of the earliest examples of a central labor union that united many smaller trade unions. The idea was to organize a network of unions throughout a single city.

The same concept emerged on a national level in 1852 with the creation of the International Typographical Union. The trade association brought together local unions of the same trade throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The rise of the factory only furthered the push to unionize. Early unions were based around skilled laborers and craftsman, but as the factory system became more widespread, there were large swaths of industrial laborers living in crowded, unsanitary urban centers. These workers often received low pay for operating machinery in unsafe conditions.

Moreover, unlike the craftsmen of old, industrial workers did not own the tools they used or the product they created; instead, industrial workers merely operated the factory owner's equipment in exchange for a wage.

The factory system prompted a dramatic increase in the number of strikes and protest actions aimed at negotiating improvements in conditions. By the 1880s, tension between bosses and workers were extremely high and unrest was everywhere.

The Haymarket Riot

Haymarket Riot of 1886
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Tension between the labor movement and employers reached a critical mass on May 4, 1886. Labor organizers and workers gathered at the Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police-led attack on workers during a strike the day before at the McCormick Reaper Works.

During the rally, when police arrived to break up the crowd, a still unidentified individual threw a bomb at officers. The police opened fire on the crowd, some of whom might have returned fire, kicking off what is now known as the Haymarket Riot. When the dust settled, seven police officers and one civilian lay dead and many more people were injured.

In the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot, a wave of repression followed. Eight men, identified as anarchists present at the rally, were arrested for the bombing and convicted by a jury in a still-controversial trial. Judge Joseph E. Gary sentenced seven of the men to death and one to 15 years in prison.

The eight men convicted of the bombing were Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg. Lingg died on November 10, 1887, while Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer were executed the following day.

Illinois Gov. Richard J. Oglesby commuted the death sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life in prison after the public expressed significant skepticism of their guilt. His successor, Gov. John P. Altgeld, would later pardon Fielden, Schwab and Neebe in 1893.

For the labor movement, the eight men convicted of the bombing are known as the Haymarket Martyrs. For others, the Haymarket Riot increased anti-labor sentiment and ramped up efforts to break strikes and prevent further labor organizing. To this day, the true Haymarket Riot bomber has not been identified.

The Haymarket Affair also led to the establishment of International Workers' Day, also known as May Day, which takes place every year on May 1. While Labor Day had not yet been officially recognized in the U.S., May Day would become a holiday celebrated by workers in countries throughout the entire world. To this day, May Day remains an important day for working men and women worldwide.

The official establishment of Labor Day as a holiday

The official establishment of Labor Day as a holiday
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Labor Day could arguably be said to have started on September 5, 1882 when 10,000 workers walked out of their workplaces and marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York City. The demonstrators demanded the creation of a "workingmen's holiday," celebrated on the first Monday in September to commemorate the original march.

The "celebration of labor day" caught on throughout the country, and some states even began passing legislation to officially designate the holiday. However, it wasn't until 1894 that the U.S. federal government officially recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday.

The U.S. 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, New Jersey, for initially proposing the idea. However, like so many of the achievements of the labor movement, the holiday is the result of a collective effort.

The federal government's recognition of Labor Day may have been more politically expedient than it was a tip of the hat to the labor movement. Shortly before signing the Labor Day legislation, President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to break a strike launched in response to wage cutting at the Pullman Palace Care Company.

The Pullman Strike, organized by the American Railway Union and union leader Eugene V. Debs, included 125,000 workers. The strike paralyzed the Pullman railroad lines, which halted U.S. Mail activity across the country. Cleveland sent troops to break the railway union's strike, using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act as justification. Gov. John P. Altgeld protested Cleveland's decision, but his dissent was ignored. Acknowledging Labor Day may have been Cleveland's way of pacifying unrest around his use of federal troops to break a strike.

Labor Day celebrates more than 160 million workers today

Labor Day Celebration
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Labor Day is a holiday that celebrates all American workers. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, there are currently more than 163 million workers in the U.S. today, which is just about half of the total population.

Today, workers can credit common protections like the minimum wage, health benefits and 40-hour workweeks 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.

It is worth nothing that union participation rates have drastically declined since the heyday of the labor movement. 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%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 10.5% of all workers were unionized in 2018. For the private sector, that number was in the single digits at 6.4%, compared with 16.8% in 1983.

Labor Day is more than just a holiday weekend; it's an opportunity to pay homage to and reflect upon the labor movement of the past, as well as celebrate your fellow workers and look to the future. Barbecues, parties and trips to the beach are excellent ways to celebrate Labor Day – after all, the idea was to create a holiday that allowed working men to take time away from work. Chances are good that most of the company you keep on Labor Day will include workers.

Whatever line of work you're in, take a moment to appreciate your fellow workers and have a conversation about those who came before. As the notion of work and labor evolve to fit our modern society, it never hurts to look to the past for lessons that could help shape tomorrow.