Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Labor Day-Beginnings and Celebration

Since this is the week leading up to Labor Day in the United States and Canada (as well in many other parts of the world), I thought I would discuss its beginnings, and how it became a national holiday.

You could trace Labor Day, back to the ancient May Day celebrated in Europe. This holiday was based on Pagan and Roman celebrations dealing with spring, or with summer.  May 1 was once considered the first day of summer, while the Summer Solstice was considered Midsummer.  This holiday consisted of festivals, not to mention a time for those who were farmers to take a time off after the hard work of planting their fields.  Later, May 1 was associated with International Worker’s Day by the socialists and communist (see below).

Our modern Labor Day, goes back to Labour Day (French) in Canada. This celebrated the movement to get workers an 8-hour workday.  The first Labour Day was a parade in December 1872 to support the Toronto Typographical Union’s Strike for a 58 hour work week. Typography is the art and skill required to arrange words and styles to fit onto a page, most notably it is referenced to those (typesetters) who arranged type set for newspapers and books for manual set printing (this was the process before the digital age).

The parade caused a major shift in Canada. During this strike the editor of the Toronto Globe pressed the police to charge the strikers with conspiracy charges. Many of the union leaders were arrested, and on September 3 another demonstration to protests the arrest was formed.

The march went to Ottawa, and the Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald repealed many anti-union laws. Within a year, the Canadian Parliament passed the Trade Union Act (which repealed many of the anti-union laws which were on the books) and afterwards all unions in Canada were seeking a 54-hour work week.  A celebration of worker’s unions would then be celebrated in spring and summer during the following years by different unions.

In 1882, Peter McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was asked to speak at a Labour Festival in Canada.  Note: In 1955 the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO, which is the longest lasting, and most influential labor federation in the US.

After returning to the United States, Peter MacGuire, and with the assistance of the Knights of Labor (another labor organization that promoted worker’s rights), organized a parade on September 5, 1883 in New York City.

To understand how this celebration became a federal holiday, you must first understand the event called the Haymarket Affair. In early May 1886 in the Haymarket Square in Chicago Illinois, a rally was occurring. This was to support workers striking for an 8 hour workday, it also was in protest to several strikers who had been killed by police the day before.

As the police and strikers faced off against each other, someone threw a bomb at the police.  The police then opened fire at the crowd of protesters. Seven police officers were killed, as were four civilians, and numerous injuries.

Eight anarchists (complicated to define, but basically those who believe in a stateless society), were arrested.  The evidence was that ONE of them may have created the bomb, but that none of them threw it at police. All eight of the anarchists were convicted of conspiracy; seven were sentenced to death, one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Four were hung, while the rest were wither pardoned or their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Another event which caused a shift toward worker’s rights was the Pullman Strike. Pullman was a car manufacturer who was notorious to pay workers low wages. The company also owned many of the apartments and homes that the workers lived in. When the company began laying off workers and cutting salaries, they did not lower rent of these homes and apartments, and in fact raised them.

The American Railway Union, a group of workers who were considered unskilled, came to the assistance of the car workers. After the Pullman company refused to negotiate, the union began to boycott work on railway cars which were owned by the Pullman Corporation.  The strike involved over 250,000 workers in 27 states.

President Grover Cleveland's Attorney General, Richard Olney, ordered troops to break up the strike and also the riots which were occurring. Richard Olney had been an attorney for the railroad companies, and still received a $10,000 retainer from several railroad companies. When it was all over, thirty people were killed and over $80 million dollars in damage had occurred.

The Haymarket Affair, and the Pullman Strike had two effects, one pushing against worker’s rights, the other for it. The event also solidified that May Day was to be observed as a worker’s holiday, this was pushed by socialists who were beginning to have influence throughout the world. Another factor of these events was to highlight the harsh conditions that companies were treating their employees.

Too make sure that May Day, and its socialist agenda, was not associated with a worker’s celebration (and to appease the growing union movement), President Cleveland adopted the Labor Day celebration. Six days after the Pullman Strike ended, Congress passed legislation that Labor Day would be a national holiday. Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson also made Labour Day to be held in September as an official holiday.

Today, since it is a federal holiday, state and federal employees get the day off, not to mention many employees of companies and businesses. Celebrations include county and state fairs, and city and town parades. Many people will simply enjoy the day off, or simply enjoy a barbeque.

It is also considered the end of summer, since it is the time that the temperatures drop in the Northeast of the United States.  Many schools will not start until the day after Labor Day. After Labor Day weekend is also when many sport’s leagues start, such as the NFL and college sports (NCAA).

I hope you enjoyed a quick history lesson about Labor Day, and that you too will enjoy it.
W.A.Rusho is an author, professional wrestler and historian. You can reach him at his website or via email.

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  1. Thanks for the great overview of Labor Day. The district I used to teach in would go back in mid-August, but really press to be done before Memorial Day weekend. I favor starting after Labor Day.

  2. Thank you for giving me an insight into Labor Day. I am always intrigued at how America's Bank Holidays compare to the UK. I picture a huge feast at Thanksgiving with family and friends.

  3. Interesting overview! Thanks for sharing, learnt couple of new things :)

  4. Fascinating post, William! I had no idea that Labour Day originated in French Canada. Or the other interesting tidbits you have mentioned. We take things for granted now. But there were many important events that led to the conditions that workers now enjoy (for the most part!)

  5. Sorry to be delayed reading this one, William. I have neglected to read about Labor Day and appreciate you compiling all this information into one post. I think: were they crazy going for a 58 hour work week instead of 30? But, yes, I realize that they were working 7 days a week and who knows how many hours a day.
    Now, too many Americans are working 10-12 hour days again even though they are overtime exempt. It's expected of them ... and ever so wrong!