LABOR DAY – although it was yesterday, we feel it’s timely to discuss it. Now known as the unofficial end of Summer, a time for store sales, or an extra long weekend for some. But the history and meaning behind the day represent the struggles of laborers in the American workforce, and collective issues that are just as relevant today as they were over a hundred years ago. It’s important that we preserve the history of Labor Day and continue to support our laborers. Read on for a brief overview of national and Pennsylvania labor history, and links to Pennsylvania labor history points of interest.
Illustration from Tribute to Labor Day newspaper article – 1901 edition of the Desert Evening News, Great Salt Lake City, Utah. Image Source: Library of Congress.
The History Behind Labor Day
The U.S. Department of Labor’s fairly neutral overview of Labor Day reports that the holiday is the result of years of dedicated efforts by members of the Labor Movement to establish fair wages and work hours. The first official Labor Day celebration (which was actually a demonstration) occurred September 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City, including a parade followed by a festival. This had a cascade effect. Subsequently, grass roots efforts by laborers and small unions led to initial ordinances being put in place in various municipalities by the mid-1880s. The first state law declaring Labor Day a legal holiday was passed in Oregon in 1887, and several other states followed suit. June 28, 1894, then-President Grover Cleveland officially signed the act into law making the first Monday of September a legal national holiday.
“According to legend, Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. McGuire believed that Labor Day should ‘be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.’”
What the report by the U.S. Department of Labor fails to mention is the significant unrest, violence, and suffering that occurred for laborers before this holiday was created. Laborers endured 12-hour or more workdays, worked 7-days a week, had low wages, no benefits, and unsafe working conditions. Child labor was also prolific. Most sources claim that the official legalization of this holiday was a political move made to appease labor unrest. The PBS New Desk asserted that the catalyst for this political move was the Pullman Strike of 1894. The workers protested the simultaneous drop in wages and maintenance of rents following a decline in sleeping car orders (due to nationwide economic depression). The domino effect of this initial rebellion included nationwide boycotts of trains carrying Pullman cars, by railroad workers. Some of these protesters pillaged and burned the cars. Railroad executives were concerned and mail trains were delayed. President Cleveland’s initial response of declaring the strike a Federal crime and deploying troops to break it culminated in heightened violence and several deaths. The strike was declared ended via injunction July 20, 1894, several strike leaders were arrested, unions were disbanded, and striking Pullman employees were rehired on the condition that they signed a pledge not to unionize again.
Although it appears that the powers that be were ultimately victorious at the expense of the common working man, the strike’s handling was viewed poorly by much of the public. Some say to appease the public and garner political favor (although this source indicates Cleveland had little to gain by doing so), President Grover Cleveland quickly signed the act into law a few days after the strike’s declared end.
Pennsylvania’s Involvement in the Labor Movement
The Explore PA History website provides a thorough overview of Pennsylvania’s particular involvement in the labor movement. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society also includes a detailed timeline of Labor History in Pennsylvania. This history is summarized subsequently. Philadelphia printers staged the U.S.’s first strike for higher wages in 1786. Some of the most notable Pennsylvania industries in the 19th century – mining, steel, and railroads – involved very low wages, extremely long hours, and limited benefits so laborers in these industries were well-known for their unions and strikes. The Depression of the 1930s also caused hardship for Pennsylvania workers, especially in the steel industry, leading to an influx of union members. The Cold War period’s increased international competition and the subsequent deindustrialization of the United States caused significant job loss and lower standards of living for many Pennsylvania workers.
Tangible evidence of Pennsylvania’s industrial and trade contributions are existent today in their original locations (some still in-use) and through museums. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society includes links to various sites, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission includes a link to the industrial heritage trail, with museums of industry (here), and The State Museum of Pennsylvania includes several items paying homage to Pennsylvania industry (many of which can be viewed virtually, here, here, ).
Work has shifted significantly in the U.S. over the past two hundred years from the industrial and skilled-trades to the white-collar jobs that we see today (related as well to the skilled labor shortage we’ve outlined before). Union memberships have significantly declined, and labor concerns have shifted to issues of health care, equitable wages, retirement, etc. Essentially, the players have changed but the game is essentially the same. It is incumbent upon us as a society not to forget the meaning behind Labor Day, to visit and read about historical industrial and labor movement sites and objects, to continue to fight for worker’s rights, and to support our local laborers as much as we can. In this way, we preserve our history as well as our society.
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DO YOU OR A FAMILY MEMBER HAVE A PERSONAL STORY RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT? OR, DO YOU KNOW OF ANY HISTORICAL SITES OR OBJECTS RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT THAT YOU’D LIKE TO MENTION?
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