1888 Labor Day Becomes an Official Massachusetts State Holiday
The history of Labor Day prior to its inception as a national holiday in 1894 is a great example of how a grassroots movement can become a treasured national institution. There were many different incarnations of what we now observe as Labor Day, long before President Cleveland signed legislation making it a national day of recognition for labor. The first Labor Day observance occurred in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. On this day, 20,000 working people marched in New York City to demand an eight-hour work day and other important labor law reforms. With a quarter-million New Yorkers watching, the marchers paraded up Broadway, carrying signs reading, “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” The event was organized by the Central Labor Union of New York, and the idea can be traced to either Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew McGuire, a machinist who later became the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey.
The following year marked another Labor Day holiday in New York. The year after, in 1884, the Central Labor Union decided to make the first Monday in September the official “workingmen’s holiday” and encouraged similar organizations in other cities to begin celebrating the holiday on that date. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which would later become the AFL, called for workers across the country to celebrate Labor Day, not just those who could make it to New York. In 1885, many industrial centers in the country celebrated. Over the next couple of years, municipal ordinances in many cities were passed concerning Labor Day, and the importance of the holiday became increasingly emphasized.
A movement soon occurred to secure state legislation. New York State filed the first bill, but the first state to make it a law was Oregon, on February 21, 1887. Legislative enactments in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York created the Labor Day holiday shortly after Oregon. Within ten years, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania also joined in with Labor Day laws. In 1893, workers in New York City took an unpaid day-off to march around Union Square in support of a national Labor Day. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday.
However, Labor Day was not the only holiday dedicated to America’s working men and women. May Day, recognized as the International Labor Day, had also developed a large following throughout the United States. In some cities the size of May Day events rivaled those of Labor Day. Despite the popularity of May Day and the appeal of an international holiday, the American Federation of Labor pushed to secure Labor Day as America’s primary celebration of its workers. This was due to the more radical tone that May Day had taken. Especially after the 1886 Haymarket riot, where several police officers and union members were killed in Chicago, May Day had become a day to protest the arrests of anarchists, socialists, and unionists, as well as an opportunity to push for better working conditions. Samuel Gompers and the AFL saw that the presence of more extreme elements of the Labor Movement would be detrimental to perception of the festival. To solve this, the AFL worked to elevate Labor Day over May Day, and also made an effort to bring a more moderate attitude to the Labor Day festivities. The AFL, whose city labor councils sponsored many of the Labor Day celebrations, banned radical speakers, red flags, internationalist slogans, and anything else that could shed an unfavorable light upon Labor Day or organized labor.
These efforts were successful, and Labor Day eventually became a federal holiday, signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894. Gompers was an important supporter of the spirit of Labor Day, saying that "Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."
Grover Cleveland and the Enactment of Labor Day
Grover Cleveland’s historical importance in creating a national holiday for labor is somewhat unusual, as he was notoriously anti-union. The politics of his presidency though, can shed some light. Labor Day achieved its official status after a series of events beginning with the Pullman railcar worker’s strike.
Workers for Pullman lived in a company town. They rented homes owned by the company, bought food from company grocers, and drew their checks from the company bank. This oppressive system only worsened when the country found itself in a depression. Hundreds of employees were laid off, and those remaining saw their pay shrink every week. No longer able to put up with the conditions of work at Pullman, the workers chose to go on strike. The Pullman workers were not alone either, as The American Railway Union came to their defense. The ARU boycotted any train carrying a Pullman car, bringing much of America’s railways to a standstill, including the postal service. President Cleveland’s reaction was to send 12,000 soldiers to break the strike. The soldiers opened fire on workers, almost immediately ending the strike. In the wake of the Pullman strike, the ARU was disbanded, its President Eugene Debs was sent to prison, and Pullman workers were forced to sign an agreement stating that they would never again join a union.
Cleveland’s reaction to the Pullman strike demonized him in the eyes of organized labor. There were massive protests across the country and appeasement of America’s workers became a national priority. Cleveland chose to do this by making Labor Day a national holiday. May Day was considered for this purpose as well, as it was also a very popular holiday within the working community; however, Cleveland feared that it would be turned into a day to commemorate the Haymarket Riot. Taking this into consideration, Cleveland chose to support Labor Day. Only six days after the end of the Pullman strike, Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. Cleveland hoped that making this concession would alleviate some of the pressure he was receiving from the Labor Movement, but it did not. Cleveland was voted out of office later that year.
Presidential Thoughts on Labor Day
Cleveland was by no means a pro-labor President, but there have been many great Presidents who have used Labor Day as a chance to express their appreciation for the American worker. One of these was President Roosevelt, who on the fiftieth anniversary of Labor Day said:
“In a nation founded upon the honest toil of its pioneers, it is meet and fitting that a day should be set aside in special recognition of our debt to the untold millions whose labors have, in large measure, made this nation what it is today. In this year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of Labor Day, it is especially fitting that the citizens be reminded of the importance of the workman's role in society. Then, too, Labor Day this year assumes an especial importance because of the struggle which we have been witnessing in recent months and the new emphasis placed by law and public opinion on the rights of labor and the privilege of organization.”
Roosevelt’s appreciation of the Labor Movement could be felt throughout not just his speech, but also his actions as President.
President Kennedy was also known for his support for organized labor, and like Roosevelt, he made an effort to thank America’s workers on the day dedicated to them. Kennedy’s speech on Labor Day of 1963 related his appreciation for the American worker, saying:
“The history of the United States is in vital respects the history of labor. Free men and women, working for a better life for themselves and their children, settled a continent, built a society, and created and diffused an abundance hitherto unknown to history. Free men and women, affirming their dignity as individuals and asserting their rights as human beings, developed a philosophy of democratic liberty which holds out hope for oppressed peoples across the world. In commemorating the role of labor, we honor the most essential traditions in American life.”
Labor Day has always been an opportunity for the President to express his support for the American Worker, and many have rightfully used this day to honor America’s working men and women. Unfortunately though, many more have chosen to let their anti-union politics diminish the day set aside to honor the achievements of the Labor Movement.
Reclaiming Labor Day
Despite the storied history and populist roots behind Labor Day, many people consider it to be nothing more than the last long weekend of the summer. An apathetic public is in no small part the result of the media, which largely ignores the true meaning of the holiday; employers who despise, rather than honor unions; and a long line of Presidents for whom Labor Day stands for everything they do not. The reality is, Labor Day should mean more now than ever. The Labor Movement is still struggling to gain basic rights for American workers, and faces increasing resistance from the corporate world and elected officials who favor big business instead of the men and women who work every day to create the great wealth of America.
Since the inception of Labor Day in Massachusetts on September 5, 1887 and in 1894 for the United States, there have been many exciting and important events on the first Monday of September. During the early years of Labor Day, union workers would not take the day to rest and go to the beach; they would take to the streets and let people know the importance of working men and women. Some unions would fine workers for not showing up to Labor Day rallies and parades. These parades and events would promote the issues and demands to the Labor Movement, such as the eight hour day and minimum wage provisions. Through time, many great labor battles were won.
Perhaps because many battles have been won, workers have forgotten the struggles and triumphs that working men and women have brought to this country; the very reason why we have a reason to celebrate. Without the struggles of Labor we would not have the eight hour day, health and safety at the workplace, a minimum wage or a substantial and strong middle class. Labor Day was founded not only to recognize these great achievements from our past, but to realize that we still deserve better and to let people know about it. Why not return to the days when workers would stage massive parades, and have speakers and politicians come to their events in order to let them know of the issues concerning working families? This will not happen overnight, but it starts with the recognition that Labor Day has been taken over by vacationers and commercial interests, and needs to be reclaimed by those for whom it was intended. That ends beginning in 2007, with the Massachusetts AFL-CIO Take Back Labor Day program and will build gradually until Labor Day lives up to its true intention: to honor the labor of working men and women and to respect the organizations through which they choose to collectively bargain, unions.
In the face of increasing globalization and the declining middle class, today we need Labor Day more than ever. We need to let the nation know why the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world. It is not because of corporations and big business, but because of the working men and women who toil every day to create the wealth of the corporate world. On this Labor Day feel free to enjoy a much-deserved rest, but also think about the past and present of the Labor Movement, and the rights that we deserve and earned through toil and turmoil, sacrifice, struggle, strike and strife throughout our storied and monumental history.