When we think about Labor Day in the 21st century, we’re typically thinking about enjoying one last hurrah for the summer. It’s the last long weekend until Thanksgiving, and it’s still warm enough to enjoy the weather. But how often do we think about the cause of Labor Day? Why do we even have this holiday in the first place, and does it still mean anything to today’s citizens?
It started as the Industrial Revolution swept through America. Laborers were required to work intense, backbreaking hours in factories — often 12-hour days, every day of the week. And their hard work was poorly repaid, as the workers could barely support themselves on their wages. So the workers began to unionize.
The increase in industrial jobs, and therefore all of the poor living and working conditions, led to an increase in unions to ensure laborers’ rights. As the laborers in these unions gained confidence in their voices and rights, they began to organize strikes and rallies in order to gain better benefits and pay. And as in any high-tension situation involving a lot of people, things sometimes turned violent.
The Pullman Strike in 1894 was the catalyst for the institution of Labor Day. Workers for Pullman Palace Car Company joined the American Railway Union (ARU) when their pay was cut but their company housing rates remained the same, and they went on strike. Eugene Debs, founder of the ARU, organized a boycott of any trains that pulled Pullman cars, and this shut down basically every freight west of Detroit.
On June 29, 1894, Debs tried to organize a peaceful rally to support the strikers, but it quickly became violent. Grover Cleveland, president at the time, brought in the armed forces to shut down the riots, and 30 people were killed. In order to make amends with the unions and laborers, he decided to institute a federal holiday — Labor Day.
Many of us don’t care how or why we have a day off work; we’re just happy to have it. As society focuses on the importance of college degrees and office jobs, we often forget that so-called “blue collar” jobs are just as important. Every working American gets a day off not because we need another day to eat more, but because over a century ago, laborers realized that their work was worth more than the pay they were receiving. They deserved a better quality of life, and they were willing to stand up for it.