Sunday, September 4, 2016

The True History of #LaborDay

In honor of the Labor Day holiday, here's a brief History of Labor Day:

People today may complain about how hard they work. Kids may not look forward to going back to school in the fall. But in earlier years, most people worked 10 or 12 hour days – every single day of the week. Children as young as six or seven worked these hours at dangerous jobs in factories and mines. All family members worked for pennies, struggling to earn enough for food and shelter, while business owners got rich.

Is it any wonder that working people began demanding more rights? In the 1800s, workers started banding together to complain. They formed labor unions, groups to fight for more workers’ rights. These groups held rallies and went on strike, demanding higher pay and better conditions.

The government got involved, but sided with employers, claiming that labor unions interfered with free trade. In 1872 in Canada, the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine hour workday. Twenty four union leaders were put in prison.

Soon after, the Toronto Trades Assembly of Canada organized a “working man’s demonstration” to call for the abolition of the law that declared trade unions “criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.” A few months later, seven Ottawa unions staged a parade a mile long. Soon after these dramatic demonstrations, the Canadian Parliament repealed the laws against trade unions.

Public demonstrations saluting labor continued. Some were more of a celebration than a demand for change. On July 22, 1872, some 3000 to 4000 workers from 23 unions marched in front of about 50,000 spectators in Toronto. The parade featured military and civilian bands, floats and banners.

Credit for suggesting a Labor Day holiday dedicated to American workers usually goes to Peter J. Maguire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 marchers joined the first New York City Labor Day parade.

Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday. Many other states followed, choosing different dates for the celebration. President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, a tradition that continues today.

Labor unions still faced severe challenges. Many employers refused to negotiate with labor unions, and broke up strikes with violence. The government generally backed the employers. Most people saw business leaders as the nation’s leaders, and supported them in disputes against labor unions. Union activists were seen as radical and dangerous.

The Depression changed the country’s attitude. Business owners could not stop the Depression, so people started to see the average worker as important to the economy. In the 1930s, the United States government began passing more laws that were favorable to workers  and labor unions. Labor Day – the one day each year especially set aside to honor working men and women – finally had its proper place and meaning in America.

This is a condensed version of an article I wrote that was originally published in Coal People Magazine, a union publication.

Photos via the Digital Public Library of America: Military band marching in the Labor Day parade. Hall County, Georgia historical photograph collection, Hall County Library System. 

Stereograph: Labor Day Parade. Union Square, New York. 1887. 

Poster: U.S. Information Agency. Bureau of Programs. Press and Publications Service. Publications Division.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.