The History of Labor Day
By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
Labor Day, always the first Monday in September, can generally be considered the symbolic end of summer. For most Americans, Labor Day Weekend is a time of backyard barbeques, boating outings, or road trips. But how did Labor Day come to be?
Labor Day was instituted as a result of the labor movement and labor unions. The first labor unions were European trade guilds. These set trade standards, promoted quality work, and coordinated apprenticeships for men who wanted to enter the trade. The truly modern labor union, however, was a product of the Industrial Revolution; labor unions were originally formed by factory workers to try to keep employers from giving away jobs to immigrants or convicts.
Later, labor unions became promoters of workers' rights. As a result of industrialization, workers in Britain and America alike worked twelve-hour days and six or seven days per week. Working conditions were often dirty or unsafe, and the labor of children was often exploited. Children's income was necessary for the family economy, and factory owners frequently employed children because they worked for very little pay. Child-labor laws, where they existed, were not strictly enforced.
In this environment, it is not surprising that labor unions began to form. They became responsible for promoting the eight-hour work day and for trying to secure fair pay and safe conditions for workers. These were the goals of the labor movement, but they were not accomplished overnight. The first Labor Day parade was held on 5 September 1882 in New York; it was actually a mass demonstration. Four years later on 4 May 1886, anarchists staged a labor demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. When police came in to break up the demonstration, a bomb was thrown and eleven people were killed, seven of whom were police. This deadly incident became known as the Haymarket Square Riot. Although there was no evidence as to who produced the bomb or who threw it, eight anarchist leaders were tried and convicted. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were released from prison seven years later when they were pardoned by Illinois governor John P. Altgeld.
Strikes, demonstrations, and riots continued; in 1894 in Chicago, the American Railroad Union and other railroad workers protested against wage cuts and layoffs by boycotting Pullman railway cars. All traffic in and out of Chicago came to a standstill. Federal troops were sent in, and this incident finally brought the labor movement to the nation's attention. As a result, Congress made Labor Day an official holiday and gave workers the first Monday in September off. This was mostly an attempt to mollify labor unions and protestors, however; it wasn't until 1938 that Congress actually enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a maximum work week of 44 hours. These rules were later changed to the working standards we know today.