Monday, September 4, 2023

Why celebrate Labor Day?

  Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, summed up this holiday's importance with these words: "All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day... is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."

  Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement in America at a time when labor was not valued or honored. Sweathouses were prevalent and workers were often mistreated and devalued. Unions were formed to protect workers, and out of these unions came the call for a day dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. They called for one day a year in tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength and prosperity of their country.

  Two men stand at the forefront of the movement to create a nationally recognized day for laborers. Peter J. McGuire, an Irish American cabinetmaker and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, first suggested a day to honor America's workers in May 1882. "Let us have a festive day during which a parade through the streets of the city would permit public tribute to American Industry."

  Matthew Maguire, a machinist and later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, proposed the holiday later in that same year. The Central Labor Union adopted his proposal and the first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1883.

  By the late 1880s, other labor organizations began lobbying their state governments for recognition of Labor Day as an official state holiday. The first state to declare the holiday a state holiday by law was Oregon on February 21, 1887. That same year, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey also enacted such laws. Other states continued to recognize the holiday in their legislatures.

  A pivotal event in 1894 would help Labor Day become a nationally recognized holiday. The Pullman Company, a manufacturer of sleeping cars for passenger trains, was feeling the strain of a failing economy. It had laid off many of its employees while cutting the wages of those still employed by the company. In retaliation for what they viewed as unfair treatment, the workers walked out and production came to a standstill. In sympathy to their cause, The American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, refused to haul railroad cars made by the company. All railroads stopped moving as a result. When the mail service was disrupted, it became a national issue and the president was called upon to intervene.

  Grover Cleveland, a long-time foe of organized labor, declared the strike a federal crime and ordered the striking laborers back to work. When the ARU refused, 12,000 federal troops were deployed to break the strike. Violence erupted, riots ensued, and in the end, two men were killed and their leaders were jailed. The strike was over, but the American citizens' opinion of Cleveland would suffer. Protests began over his harsh methods of dealing with the struggling workers and their appeasement became a top political priority.

  1894 was an election year. Hoping to win back public favor, Cleveland signed the bill making Labor Day a nationally recognized holiday. He was not reelected.

  Unions changed the fate of the American worker. At a time when workers were devalued and mistreated, they provided a brotherhood to stand against big industry. In celebration of Labor Day, we celebrate those who fought for a better life while working hard and pursuing their American dream. This Labor Day, honor them in your festivities. Thank them for their perseverance in pursuit of fair treatment and the benefits you now enjoy because of their sacrifices.

  Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Capital City Free Press on September 2, 2017. 

  About the author: Sharon Lauer is a contributor to

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