The Surprisingly Radical History of Labor Day


Every year, the first Monday in September recognizes the lasting achievements of working Americans with the celebration of Labor Day. The long weekend is meant to honor the contributions of laborers by providing extra time for relaxation and celebration. Many Americans celebrate with picnics, parades, and barbecues… but do most of us know the real, radical history of the holiday?

Following the Industrial Revolution, working conditions were often substandard and sometimes grim, with factories, mills, mines, and railroads requiring 12 hour workdays, employing young children, and crowding employees into small spaces. Sweatshop workers were punished for talking or singing as they worked and restrictions were enforced by harsh supervision. Calls for better working conditions arose among worker unions in strikes and rallies during the 1860s and 1870s. Workers fought for better working conditions, shorter working hours, and recognition for their contributions.

The First Labor Day

After an 1872 printers strike saw 10,000 people marching through the streets of Toronto to advocate for a shorter work week, Canadian cities started to honor workers with annual parades. Ten years later on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, union leaders in New York City organized a march that would be known as the very first Labor Day. 10,000 workers marched down the streets and ended their parade with picnics, speeches, dancing, and fireworks.


Laborers celebrating the First Labor Day with banners in the streets


Although this march wasn’t an official holiday, the movement to have it federally recognized was now under way. Some states, like Oregon, Massachusetts, and New York, began to designate the first Monday in September as Labor Day. However, in 1886, an alternative holiday had emerged to celebrate the rights and contributions of workers: May Day.

May Day

On May 1, 1886, workers flooded the streets of Chicago in what would become known as the Haymarket Riot. The demonstrations lasted four days as the laborers fought for an 8 hour work day between scuffles with the police. On May 4, a a bomb detonated amidst a large crowd, killing 15 people and police officers. 

In 1889, May 1 was internationally recognized as a holiday for laborers by a gathering of socialists in Paris. Because of the Haymarket Riot’s violent nature, President Grover Cleveland urged state legislatures to designate the first Monday in September as the official holiday to celebrate the contributions of laborers instead. By 1894, around half of the states had officially recognized Labor Day. 

The Pullman Strike

Unfortunately, it took another conflict for the nation to federally recognize Labor Day as an official holiday. On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company outside of Chicago went on strike to protest their long hours and low wages. On June 22, members of the American Railway Union joined their fight by refusing to move Pullman cars from one train to another. This act of solidarity caused disorder in the railway traffic across the country, and piqued the attention of Washington D.C.. Politicians wanted to appease the laborers and designated Labor Day as a national holiday. President Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28, 1984.


An illustration of laborers facing the police as they riot


However, the president was hardly a supporter of the strike; he shortly sent armed troops to Chicago to end their boycott. Angry strikers rioted and formed a mob into which the guardsmen fired, killing around 30 people. Unfortunately, the designation of the holiday did not improve working conditions; it would take another 44 years to enact a minimum wage, a shorter work week, and to limit child labor.

Despite its bloody history and its radical beginnings, Labor Day is now widely celebrated across the United States and is recognized as a holiday that “stands for .. social advancement of the common people” (Samuel Grompers, 1910). As expectations of workers and their workplaces continue to change, each Labor Day celebration holds a special place in American history. Happy Labor Day!