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Many people don’t realize that Labor Day is a holiday that actually has its roots in the labor movement and protests for better working conditions. The history of Labor Day started with disparate movements to honor workers and improve their quality of life, efforts which were eventually acknowledged as part of the holiday we recognize today.

In this article, we’ll look at the history of Labor Day, how it came to be, and why we celebrate it today.

What the Industrial Revolution Did

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, and the changes it wrought on society were profound. It completely transformed the way goods were produced, which led to a massive increase in productivity and wealth. It is responsible for most of the comforts and conveniences people enjoy today, such as:

  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Factory production
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Electricity

Sounds good right? Unfortunately, it also brought a lot of pain to the lives of workers. People had to work in dangerous conditions with poor lighting and ventilation for long hours with no breaks or benefits. Many writers and social commentators documented the terrible working conditions, gradually leading to the creation of labor unions and laws that protected workers from unscrupulous employers.

In effect, there was no legal limit on the working day or week at the time, so employers could force their employees to work as many hours as they wanted without any concern for safety or worker comfort. There weren’t even really any age restrictions on employment, so children as young as five or six years old could be legally hired for labor. A lot of children were involved in dangerous jobs like mining, construction, and factory work because their small hands were more adept at reaching into tight spaces and learning fine motor skills.

Naturally, that situation couldn’t be allowed to last. The first labor laws were established in the early 1800s, and they mostly focused on child labor. This was partly because there was a lot of public concern about how young children were being exploited by greedy factory owners. The passage of these laws directly influenced the education reforms of the 1840s, especially in terms of the development of public schools and compulsory attendance.

The Rise of Labor Unions

Activists began more loudly protesting the work conditions for adults in the late 1800s, and they eventually formed labor unions to represent workers’ rights. The first major union in the United States was the  Knights of Labor, which was founded in 1869 by Philadelphia garment workers concerned about low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. They soon expanded their reach to include all workers, not just those in one specific industry.

Government backlash against labor unions, though, wasn’t long in coming. In 1877,  President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops into Pennsylvania to put down a railroad strike after a court injunction failed to end the walkout. The following year, Congress passed the Railroad Labor Act, which prohibited strikes and other union actions by railroad workers.

Nevertheless, the labor union movement grew in the 1880s, even as it faced increasing opposition from employers and government officials. A great deal of the credit for these successes must go to the labor union members themselves, who were willing to endure hardship and risk their jobs in order to advance their cause. It’s also worth noting that many labor unions achieved their goals without violence or lawbreaking.

The labor union movement played a key role in advancing workers’ rights, and this was often done through negotiation rather than direct confrontation. Labor unions also helped influence government policy, as seen in the case of the Railway Labor Act of 1926 when Congress passed legislation that regulated the way unions could strike and took other steps to protect working people.

The First Labor Day

Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 when the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York City organized a parade to honor laborers and draw attention to the plight of workers. The CLU was an organization created by socialists, anarchists, union members, and others who were opposed to the exploitation of workers at the time.

At that time, it wasn’t a federal holiday, but rather, a day for workers to celebrate their own contributions to society. Over time, Labor Day became more about celebrating those who worked hard over long periods of time than about celebrating the labor movement itself.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize Labor Day as a holiday. Other states soon followed suit, including New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Massachusetts. The movement grew in power and influence until finally, it reached the White House.

Labor Day Becomes Law

The U.S. government had been admittedly slow to recognize workers’ rights. The Pinkertons, a private detective agency, were hired by businesses to break up union strikes. The government wasn’t shy about using the Pinkertons as well; for instance, the agency was hired to break up the Pullman Strike of 1894 and keep it from interfering with mail delivery. The strike ended after federal troops intervened, but not before two men were killed.

Unfortunately, the government failed to act on the recommendations of its own commission that studied the Pullman Strike, which included a call for an eight-hour workday and a ban on child labor. Further repression of workers’ strikes and marches led to the creation of a new and more aggressive labor organization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was more effective than its predecessors at organizing strikes and bargaining for better wages, but it still lacked real power in the face of corporate interests.

As time went on and new presidential administrations emerged, though, resistance to the labor movement grew weaker. In July 1894, Grover Cleveland signed an act that made Labor Day an official holiday for all federal employees who worked for at least six months out of the year (this excluded railroad workers). It also required that federal employees receive at least 10 days of paid vacation per year. This was one of the first laws to acknowledge workers’ rights.

The reaction was immediate, and many states followed the Federal lead. Annual labor day parades became common, and many cities around the country celebrated with parades of their own.

The Legacy of Labor Day

Labor Day is still a widely celebrated holiday, though it has lost some of its original purpose. Although the original intent was to honor those who worked hard to improve the lives of American workers, Labor Day is more commonly viewed today as an opportunity for people to have a three-day weekend.

Is that really a bad thing, though? People may take their employee benefits for granted now, but that doesn’t diminish the holiday’s importance. It has become a day for families to get together and have fun. The celebration has been watered down over time, but it’s still a great way to honor those who fought for workers’ rights.

Many employers also take time off for Labor Day, but that’s not a requirement. It’s acceptable to work through Labor Day, especially if the company has a lot of work to do. 

Today, many employers will even pay their employees for the day off. Other companies extend employees the option of taking another day off instead of receiving this payment.

At Resourcing Edge, we honor Labor Day as a celebration of workers’ rights. Contact one of our consultants to learn more and explore our wide variety of benefit options. 

Roberta McKay

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