While it's easy to associate Labor Day with barbecues and a last hurrah of summer, the holiday is an opportunity to honor labor activists of the past and support those who continue to fight for workers’ rights today. In fact, the U.S. labor movement has been a driving force behind many of the workplace rights and benefits we often take for granted today.
Labor activists, often risking their own safety and well-being, advocated for shorter workdays, safer working conditions, and fair wages. The U.S. labor movement’s push for an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, and workplace safety standards laid the foundation for the work-life balance we aim to achieve today.
Labor Unrest and a Holiday to Honor Workers
In the late 1800s, it was common for most industrial workers to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. Children as young as five or six worked in mines, mills, and factories across the United States. Working conditions were often dangerous and dirty, and deadly accidents were common. As the country’s dependence on manufacturing grew, trade unions emerged as a way for workers to join together and protest the unsafe conditions, long hours, and low pay. The country’s first Labor Day parade was held Sept. 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers marched in New York City.
Unfortunately, other demonstrations for workers rights at the time weren’t as peaceful. Many factory owners and others in power refused to yield to workers demands, and some reacted with violence to the rising influence of trade unions. In particular, the Haymarket affair in 1886, where police fired on striking workers, and the Pullman Strike in 1894, in which 70 people were killed nationwide, prompted the recognition of Labor Day as a federal holiday.
In an attempt to calm the labor unrest and repair ties with American workers, Congress made Labor Day a legal holiday in 1894. The national holiday signified the government's acknowledgment of the importance of the labor movement. Today, Labor Day is annually observed on the first Monday in September.