History of Labor Day
The first Monday in September is called Labor Day and is celebrated as a holiday by most Americans. Most businesses and schools are closed. Labor Day weekend is thought of as the unofficial end of summer. Schools have just opened or are about to open, and weather is getting cooler. The day is meant to honor the American workers for the contributions they have made to the strength and prosperity of the United States.
In 1882, union leaders asked workers to come together in New York City for a labor festival. 10,000 people marched in the parade. It was called a day of the people. The large labor union, Knights of Labor, was having a conference in September in 1882 in New York City, so local union people wanted the two events to coincide. That year and the next, 1883, the holiday was held on September 5th. Beginning with 1884, New York City decided to hold it on the first Monday of September.
An incident in Chicago in May, 1886, prompted workers to set up a new holiday called International Workers Day. This never became an official holiday, however. Workers gathered in the streets to protest long working days and to ask for 8-hour days. At first, they were peaceful until a bomb was thrown at a policeman who was killed. The police fired into the crowd and several people were killed. After that event, union leaders called May 1 International Workers Day. It has never become official in America. Eighty countries do celebrate that day. Also, in 1886, 200,000 employees of the Union Pacific and Missouri Railroad went on a strike which lasted for weeks. Fighting occurred and several workers were killed.
The average worker in the United States worked a 10-hour day in the 1890's. Pay was low and working conditions for many people were not good. A violent strike of Pullman train workers occurred in May, 1894, in Chicago, where many were killed. A strike is a time when employees of a company refuse to work unless the boss of the company listens to needs they say they have regarding wages, working conditions and other benefits.
Other railroad workers joined the Pullman strike. Railroads carried the mail so the President tried to force the train employees to work by an injunction. The employees refused. The President sent in federal troops. 30 workers died. Because of that strike, Congress pushed President Grover Cleveland to declare the first Monday in September a federal holiday called Labor Day.
Because of the incidents in 1886 and 1894 in the month of May, President Cleveland wanted to avoid the month of May when in 1894 he chose the date in September for Labor Day. Professor Jonathan Cutler of Wesleyan University says that the May date remembers protests and violence. The September Labor Day celebrates the 'dignity of work' for all. On that day, New York City still celebrates with a big parade.
Many traditions have grown up around the Labor Day holiday. People stop wearing white clothes by that day. Families take the last two weeks in August as vacation ending up over the Labor Day weekend. Many retail businesses hold sales with big discounts on products on Labor Day. Over 60% of Americans have a barbecue on that day. Many fall sports begin on that day. NCAA sports teams begin their games that weekend. The Southern 500 NASCAR auto race is held that weekend in Darlington, South Carolina. The National Hot Rod Association holds their finals for drag racing on Labor Day Weekend. The U.S. Open tennis championship in Flushing, New York, starts the week before and goes through the week following Labor Day.
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