Why do we celebrate Labor Day?
Labor Day is about more than sales, first days of school and barbeques to celebrate summer’s end. This holiday, federally recognized for more than a century, is meant to honor citizens and immigrants doing the essential — but all too often unrecognized, poorly-paid — work that actually built this country and has kept it running, even during wars, natural disasters and pandemics. Just as important to remember are the complicated politics of this day-off because the fight for basic rights on and off the job continues.
Newspapers paid little attention to the first Labor Day parade on Sept. 5, 1882. A short story about the 10,000 cigarmakers, seamstresses and tradespeople marching “in an orderly and pleasant manner” through Manhattan appeared on the last page of the New York Times the next day. Reporters noted signs demanding “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work,” “Pay No Rent,” “Don’t Forget the Penal Code on Election Day” and “The True Remedy is Organization and the Ballot.” But journalists really delighted in pointing out that organizers had predicted that anywhere from “30,000 or 40,000 men would be in line,” the “numerical strength…to satisfy the politicians of this City that they must not be trifled with.”
Turn-out really reflected the realities of working in the late-19th century. Long hours, meager pay and job insecurity were the rule, not the exception, in the Gilded Age. So, it was actually remarkable that 10,000 men, women and children showed up to march to and then picnic at Union Square. Their signs reflected that labor rights then and now were about more than just wages. Empowering people on the job was vital to making the country, not just workplaces, more democratic.
That September day was such a success that union organizers across the country embraced the idea. Labor Day began to be celebrated on the first Monday in September in the mid-1880s as municipalities and states across the country made it an official holiday.
New York legislators weren’t the first. They waited until 1887 to give people a much-needed break between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The New York Times covered that year’s parade, the largest ever — on the front page. But journalists remained unimpressed. Many businesses were open even with “vast numbers of people out on the streets” despite “the unfitness of the season for a general holiday.”
September was actually a shrewd choice for politicians. Organizers started calling for 8-hour day protests to be held on May 1 in 1884, two years after New York’s first Labor Day parade. But May Day, as it is now called around the world, was tinged with the radicalism that both Democrats and Republicans feared at the time. A May 4, 1886 bomb blast at an 8-hour day demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square did a lot to solidify the link between a May holiday for workers and the spread of anarchy, socialism and communism.
Some kind of recognition still seemed a savvy way to soothe widespread labor unrest. But the federal government didn’t join cities and states in declaring a Labor Day until the extraordinary 1894 Pullman strike. A protest coming out of railcar factory just outside Chicago, the Pullman Palace Car Company, shut down railroads in twenty-six states. Federal courts responded with an injunction that President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, ordered federal troops to enforce. Thirty people died before he signed the bill establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday on June 28, 1894. The strike continued but ended before the first federally recognized Labor Day that September.
It would be forty years before Congress offered working people more than a holiday. The New Deal included promises of a basic standard of living and genuine rights on the job through the 1935 Social Security Act, 1935 Wagner Act and 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Those laws, like so much of the New Deal’s celebrated legislation, didn’t protect agricultural, domestic and public-sector workers, who then and now were overwhelmingly people of color. It took Congress another 30 years to pass the storied guarantees for civil, voting and immigration rights that enabled even more people to take Labor Day off to shop, grill or get young kids ready to learn, not to work since the Fair Labor Standards Act had finally prohibited child labor.
Those legislative achievements hardly resolved the fights that inspired the first Labor Day or the politics that made it a September, not a May, holiday. Marches, protests, votes and court challenges made those beltway breakthroughs possible and continued even as rulings, like the recent Janus decision, and state laws, like right-to-work restrictions, undermined labor, civil and voting rights.
So many now find themselves demanding the rights that New Yorkers marched for more than 100 years ago. Amazon workers efforts to organize in Alabama and court challenges to California’s gig economy proposition have been making headlines. But debate has also raged across the country about extending unemployment benefits, raising wages, including human needs (like education and care) in infrastructure spending and ensuring everyone has the right to vote, including the many Black and Brown workers labeled essential. Researchers have shown that those critical but poorly paid jobs made it hard for low-income Americans to get to the polls even before some legislators spent this summer passing voting restrictions. Those historic, interlocking, ongoing conflicts are what Labor Day has always been about and will continue to be about unless there’s real recognition and support for people who have done the work on and off the job to make this country more democratic.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches and writes about US politics, business, labor and education. Her most recent book is “Indentured Students,” a history of the student-loan industry. Follow her on Twitter: @etshermer