The First Labor Day

Having the first Monday in September off from work was significant for American workers in 1894, when Labor Day was declared a national holiday. Working conditions in the country’s factories, railroads, mills, and mines were grim. Employees, including many children, were often required to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. Supervision was harsh and punishments were handed out to those who talked or sang as they worked.

Calls for shorter workdays and better conditions came from worker strikes and rallies in the decades after the Civil War. On Sept. 5, 1882, union leaders in New York City organized what’s thought to be the first Labor Day parade. Tens of thousands of labor union members—bricklayers, jewelers, typographers, dress and cloak makers, and many other tradespeople—took unpaid leave and marched with their locals. The day culminated in picnics, speeches, fireworks and dancing.

Labor Day had become an official holiday in 24 states by the time it became a federal holiday. Labor Day parades and other festivities demonstrate the strength and esprit de corps of trade and labor organizations. They celebrate the contributions of workers to strength, prosperity, and the well-being of the country.

Labor Day vs. May Day

Both Labor Day and May Day, the two worker holidays, grew out of violent clashes between labor and police in the American Midwest. What is known as the “Haymarket Riot” or “Haymarket Incident” began on May 1,1886. Thousands of workers took to Chicago streets to demand an eight-hour workday. The demonstration lasted for days, and on May 4 a bomb was set off, killing seven police officers and eight civilians. The perpetrator was never identified. A few years later the event inspired an international gathering of socialists in Paris to declare May Day a holiday honoring workers rights. Now known as “International Workers’ Day,” the holiday is celebrated in many countries across the world.

Eight years later, in May 1894, workers went on strike to protest 16-hour workdays and low wages at the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured railroad cars in a plant near Chicago. Members of the powerful American Railway Union (ARU) joined in, refusing to move Pullman cars. Rail traffic across the country was crippled. Days after the ARU joined the Pullman strike, a languishing bill to make Labor Day a national holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland also ordered federal troops to Chicago to end the boycott. Angry strikers began to riot, and the national guardsmen fired into the mob, killing dozens of people.

A History of Slow, Incremental Progress

The Labor Day holiday was thought to be a conciliatory gesture to labor and became the less-radical alternative to International Workers’ Day. In the years that followed, company owners began to accept workers’ demands for better treatment. In 1914 Henry Ford more than doubled wages to $5. When his profits doubled in two years, rivals realized he might be onto something. In 1926 he cut workers’ hours from nine to eight.

During the New Deal, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act limited child labor, set a minimum wage, and mandated a shorter workweek, with overtime pay for longer shifts. By the 1940s the average workweek had fallen to five eight-hour days. Today, in a reversal of the old arrangement, work hours are shorter for lower-skilled laborers, while white-collar workers put in longer weeks.

The Influence of Radicals

The distinction between Labor Day as celebrated in the U.S. and May Day as celebrated by much of the rest world reflects the political divisions in the American labor movement in the 20th century. Many of the early labor organizers and agitators were anarchists, Communists, and socialists, who saw the potential of collective worker action to create a more just society.

Eugene V. Debs—who helped found the American Railway Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—ran five times for president on the Socialist Party ticket. Prominent labor radicals included anarchist Lucy Parsons, socialist Big Bill Haywood, and Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, worker rights advocate and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and farmworker champion Dolores Huerta were other prominent radicals.

Government-Sanctioned Persecution

After major strikes and demonstrations, leaders were often arrested on political grounds. For example, after the Haymarket Incident, scores of foreign-born radicals and labor organizers were rounded up by the police in Chicago and elsewhere. Eight men labeled as anarchists were convicted in a trial in which no evidence was presented linking the defendants to the bombing. Seven of the men were sentenced to death and four of them were hanged. They were among many people unjustly tried and executed in efforts to tamp down the growing labor movement and rid it of radical leaders.

From the 1920s on, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provided a large-scale demonstration on what living under socialism and communism was like. Communists gained control of China, and the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.

After World War II, with Western and Communist nations locked in a Cold War, anti-Communist persecution was common in the U.S. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required union officials to swear that they had no Communist affiliations and encouraged some unions to expel radicals. In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court found this provision of the act unconstitutional.

Labor Day Today

Labor Day weekend is now a time of barbecues, weekend getaways, and summer clearance sales, yet worker-oriented Labor Day parades and festivities still abounded in 2019 in dozens of cities across the U.S. The faces in photos of those parades include all colors and ethnicities, as unions today are more diverse than ever before.

In 2020 parades were canceled because of COVID-19, but some unions celebrated the day through good works. For example, in Los Angeles a labor coalition came together to sponsor a food distribution that fed thousands, as reported by NBC 4 Los Angeles.

Labor leaders who focus on bread-and-butter issues, rather than broad social change, continue to dominate the AFL-CIO and other unions. Unions also attempt to help their members by endorsing political candidates, supporting political action committees, and taking stands on civil rights and worker safety issues.