Labor Day originated during one of American history’s most dismal chapters. In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., the average American worked 12-hour days and 7-day weeks just to make a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. Labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and pressure employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these events turned violent, while other events gave rise to longstanding traditions. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
Preceding organized labor protests was The Knights of Labor, a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia formed in 1869. Worker militancy rose toward the end of the decade, especially after the great railroad strike of 1877. Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly took office in 1879, and under his leadership the Knights flourished; by 1886 the group had 700,000 members. Powderly dispensed with the earlier rules of secrecy and committed the organization to seeking the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work, and political reforms including the graduated income tax.
The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday” that celebrated workers and their achievements, caught on in industrial centers across the country. Many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress, however, would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later when a watershed moment in American labor history brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. In the wake of this massive unrest and to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
More than a century later, the true founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified.
Reference material in part taken from the following sources: Constitution Daily, Nat’l Constitution Ctr; and History.com