We get the first Monday of September off every year, but do we ever really take the time to reflect on what it’s all about? It’s not just the heralding of summer’s end. It’s about us—a tribute to the contributions and achievements American workers have made throughout history.
The late 1800s are one of the more dismal chapters of American history. During the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average American was working long, 12-hour days, 7 days a week just to meet basic needs. The manufacturing industry was rapidly replacing agriculture. And while some states had already restricted child labor, children as young as 5 and 6 were earning far less than their adult counterparts as they toiled away in factories, mines and mills across the country to help their families survive. Our country’s people, especially the very poor and recent immigrants, faced extremely unsafe working conditions, lacking the fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks we take for granted today.
The labor unions that had formed to fight these injustices grew more prominent and vocal. Strikes and rallies were organized to protest these horrible working conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent; perhaps you’ve heard about the Haymarket Riot of 1886 where several Chicago policemen and workers were killed.
Other movements gave rise to traditions we have followed to this day. On September 5, 1882, ten thousand workers refused pay and took time off to march from New York City’s City Hall to Union Square. This even is widely acknowledged as the first Labor Day parade in our nation’s history.
In other industrial centers across the country, the idea of a holiday for the working man caught on. Many states passed legislation recognizing the holiday, but Congress would not legalize it for another 12 years when a watershed moment would bring workers’ rights squarely into public view.
On May 11, 1894, employees of the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in protest of wage cuts and the firing of union reps. On June 26, railroad traffic across the country was crippled after the American Railroad Union and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. The federal government dispatched troops to Chicago in an effort to break the strike, which set off a wave of riots that caused the deaths of over a dozen workers.
Massive unrest followed in its wake and Congress, in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. While the true founder of Labor Day remains elusive, Americans still celebrate this holiday with parades, picnics, barbecues, firework displays and other public gatherings.
So as you celebrate the end of summer and the start of the back-to-school season, take some time to share our country’s history with your friends and family. And don’t forget to book Cold Stone Catering to help you make Labor Day 2015 an unforgettable celebration.