Labor Day, the first Monday of September, is more than just a day off work. It is a celebration of the American Labor Movement and a yearly tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of this country.
Poor Working Conditions Call for Change
The Labor Day holiday originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal times. At the height of the Industrial revolution in the late 1800s, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to earn a basic living. Children as young as 5 or 6 worked in mills, factories, and mines across the country, earning a fraction of adult workers’ wages, and workers of all ages often faced extremely unhealthy, unsanitary, and unsafe working conditions.
The Pullman Strike
During a severe U.S. depression in 1893, the Pullman Company cut wages when the company’s revenue dropped. Most factory workers who built Pullman rail cars lived in the “company town” of Pullman in Chicago, which was built and owned by industrialist George Pullman. Seeing wages drop while rents remained the same, supported by the American Railway Union, workers called for a strike with boycott against all trains carrying a Pullman car, as an effort to bring Pullman to compromise.
U.S. Government Intervenes with an Injunction
Fueled by extensive media coverage, resistance to the movement forced the federal government to secure a federal court injunction against the American Railway Union, ordering strikers to stop interfering with trains that carried mail cars. Violence broke out in cities, and thirty people were killed in response to riots and sabotage that caused $80 million in damages. The strike eventually collapsed.
Pullman Surrenders Ownership of Company Town
President Grover Cleveland’s administration appointed a national commission to study the causes of the 1894 strike, and found George Pullman’s operations of his company town to be “un-American” and partly to blame. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town.
Labor Day Legislation to Appease Organized Labor
In an effort to appease organized labor after the strike, President Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday, and legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike ended.