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9-2-17

The bloody roots of Labor Day


Although Labor Day was not declared an official holiday until 1894, the first ‘organized’ Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. The day was celebrated with a picnic, concert and speeches. It is said that ten thousand workers marched in the parade from City Hall to Union Square. This illustration is as it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper’s September 16, 1882 issue. The artist of the drawing is simply listed as ‘Staff Illustrator.’ -Public Domain



By Tami Stevenson


Most Americans see Labor Day as an end-of-summer three-day weekend that marks the beginning of all the preparation and excitement for the upcoming holidays. Few Americans stop to reflect, or even know about the struggle workers endured to get where we are today. In 1890, full-time employees at manufacturing and many other industrial places of employment worked 100 hours per week. That was the standard. The 8-hour workday came at a price. The 40-hour work week did not become the labor standard by accident. It was a bloody affair that cost the lives of workers across America throughout the struggle.



Historians say it began when a rough recession took place in the early 1890s. George Pullman, according to biographical resources, was an American engineer and industrialist. He designed and manufactured the Pullman sleeping car and founded a company town, Pullman, for the workers who manufactured it. His Pullman Company also hired African-American men to staff the Pullman cars, who became known and widely respected as Pullman porters, providing elite service until the recession hit. Pullman was forced to lay off workers and reduce wages but he did not reduce their rent. Workers had nothing left to feed their families, since their rent came directly out of their paychecks.



The headquarters were in Pullman, Chicago. Workers went on strike in May of 1894, and it went nation-wide, shutting down railways across many states. The following month, Congress passed legislation making the first Monday of September a day to recognize workers, Labor Day, although critics accused the government of creating the holiday to simply ‘appease’ angry workers.


Interestingly enough, just one short month later in July, President Grover Cleveland (D) sent federal troops to Pullman Chicago to ‘crush the strike’. Up until then, the strikers were mostly peaceful.


According to Britannica Encyclopedia, the federal troops arrived on July 3. Their website states that, “The strikers reacted with fury to the appearance of the troops. On July 4 they and their sympathizers overturned railcars and erected barricades to prevent troops from reaching the yards. On July 6 some 6,000 rioters destroyed hundreds of railcars in the South Chicago Panhandle yards.


By that time, there were some 6,000 federal and state troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals in the city, but they could not contain the violence. On July 7 national guardsmen, after having been assaulted, fired into a mob, killing between 4 and 30 people and wounding many others. American Railway Union (ARU) president, Eugene V. Debs then tried to call off the strike, urging that all workers except those convicted of crimes be rehired without prejudice. But the General Managers Association, the federation of railroads that had overseen the response to the strike, refused and instead began hiring nonunion workers. The strike dwindled, and trains began to move with increasing frequency until normal schedules had been restored. Federal troops were recalled on July 20. The Pullman Company, which reopened on August 2, agreed to rehire the striking workers on the condition that they sign a pledge never to join a union. By the time it ended, the ordeal had cost the railroads millions of dollars in lost revenue and in looted and damaged property, and the strikers had lost more than $1 million in wages.”



This bloody strike marked the beginning of fair labor laws in the United States. Throughout the years many more strikes and battles were fought with lives lost for coal minors, railroad workers and workers in the manufacturing industry to name a few as unions played a huge role as well.


Through much of the 1800’s until June 26, 1940, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act that limited the workweek to 40 hours (without further compensation), workers made strides in individual workplaces throughout the nation. For instance, on September 25, 1926, in an effort to increase productivity and profits, Ford Motor Company adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek all on their own. Henry Ford said, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure (time) for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” Ford felt if workers had weekends off, Saturdays could be spent on shopping. Since he also doubled their wage from $2.34 for a nine hour day to $5 per day for 8 hours, workers could buy his cars. This immediately boosted productivity and built a sense of company loyalty and pride with Ford employees. It also caused a shockwave throughout the car manufacturing industry, but it wasn’t long before other manufacturers all over the world followed his lead as they saw Ford’s profits double. In spite of this, it took America fourteen more years before the 40 hour workweek became the standard in 1940.



Since then studies that have been conducted suggest a person cannot maintain productivity at a 60-hour workweek for more than three weeks at a time, let alone a 100 hour workweek for an unlimited amount of time. America has come a long way in the last 100 years. We are thankful to our forefathers for their sacrifices.



This Labor Day amidst the barbecues and parties with family and friends let’s take a moment to appreciate how far our nation has come.


- Courtesy Image: “Keeping Warm” appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 22, 1919. The cartoon suggests that people want Uncle Sam to take federal action to stop the coal strike.