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What is Labor Day?

Labor Day: A day that most of us, ironically, do not labor. For most of our lives, Labor Day has meant two things: the unofficial end of summer and, more importantly, a three-day weekend.

But what is Labor Day and why do we have it every year?

Let’s start with what Labor Day is. Labor day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and is normally observed on the first Monday in September. It was created by the American labor movement in the late 19th century and became an official U.S. holiday in 1894.

Why do we celebrate it?

In the late 1800s at the apex of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week just to make a decent living. Despite some laws and regulations, children as young as 5 or 6 worked many of these labor-intensive jobs in mills, factories, and mines. And they earned a fraction of what an adult would make doing the same job.

Aside from the long hours and days, workers also worked in extremely unsafe conditions with a lack of fresh air and sanitary facilities, not to mention not getting any breaks throughout the day.

As manufacturing continued to replace agriculture as the top employer in the country, labor unions began to form and become more vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest these poor conditions and force employers to change hours and pay.

Some of these events turned violent, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago where several policemen and workers were killed. Other rallies turned into tradition. On September 5, 1882, thousands of workers in New York City took to the streets to march from City Hall to Union Square in what was considered the first Labor Day Parade in the country.

The new “holiday” celebrated on the first Monday in September caught on with other areas across the country and many states passed legislation recognizing it as an official holiday, even before it became nationally recognized over a decade later.

On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.

On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, all but halting railroad traffic nationwide. To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, creating a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.

In an attempt to repair ties with American workers, President Grover Cleveland signed congressional legislation on June 28, 1894, making Labor Day a legal holiday in the United States.

So as you grill out, spend time on the water, or go to a friend’s house on Monday, take a moment to reflect on what Labor Day really is about and appreciate the fact that you have the ability to celebrate with the ones you love as summer comes to a close.


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