The origins of Labor Day can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the Labor movement in America was gathering steam. A potent cocktail of conditions had created the need for an organized political group to advocate for the interests of workers: The Industrial Revolution had created cities around factories, pulling workers away from agrarian occupations and into urban industry. Darwin’s fashionable new theory of “survival of the fittest” fit perfectly with the deregulated, laissez-faire approach of the government to business, which meant there were almost no protections for workers.
Working and living conditions in this environment were abysmal. The average American worked twelve hours per day, seven days a week, just to make ends meet. Five-year-old children were paid a fraction of the already meager earnings their parents were making. There were no rules giving employees access to fresh air, bathrooms, or time to eat, and many employers elected not to.
Labor unions stepped into this bleak milieu. The first Labor Day rally was held on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers in and around New York City took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square, demanding basic protections from their government.
While some progressive states (particularly those with large industrial cities) honored the “workingmen’s holiday,” it took a tragedy for the national government to pay attention. In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago were upset about cuts to their wages, and the firing of union representatives who had been advocating on their behalf.
Eugene V. Debs, the head president of the American Railway Union, initiated a boycott of all Pullman workers, effectively shutting down the entire transnational railway system, and bringing significant amounts of commerce across the country to a grinding halt.
To break the strike, the federal government sent troops to Chicago. Riots broke out and left thirty workers dead. In the aftermath of the violence, the federal government was hard pressed to improve their standing with workers.
And so on June 28, 1894, Congress passed a law declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday in honor of American workers, calling the day Labor Day. The day has since been celebrated across the country with picnics, barbecues, and parades.
America isn’t the only country with an annual holiday dedicated to the country’s workers, but it is the only country in which that holiday falls when it does on the calendar. In many other countries around the world, the first day of May (otherwise known as May Day) is dedicated to honoring workers; it also happens to be International Workers’ Day.
So as you take off for the long weekend, remember that Labor Day doesn’t only mark the end of summer, it also once marked the end of a particularly bloody phase of conflict between the United States and its workers.