A reflection on Labor Day and the working class

September 11, 2020

By Alex Pecevich, LCLG Business Development Manager

Like many stories in American history that were not properly documented, the history of Labor Day is shrouded in fuzzy details.

According to some historians, the day was first spoken in to existence after a public parade of various labor organizations was held in New York City alongside the support of the Central Labor Union. Given the success of the parade it was propositioned that a day like this should be recognized annually and so the idea of Labor Day was born. Other historical scholars believe that the holiday was the brainchild of Peter J. Maguire who came up with the idea after a visit to Toronto where he saw a parade celebrating the labor that was previously conducted that spring. He brought the idea back to America saying that the event should be “a demonstration of organized labor’s solidarity and strength.”

While the origins of this holiday may vary, the idea behind what the founders were aspiring to honor remain the same. The overlooked working class was fed up and rightfully deserved recognition. By 1909, almost 20 years after the holiday’s inception the American Federation of Labor convention designated the Sunday preceding Labor Day as “Labor Sunday”, to be dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. While this idea of historical education has been lost somewhere between sun bathing and alcohol consumption it is important to remember the importance of the labor movement and what this holiday signifies when it comes to workers’ rights and unionization in this country. In the late 1800s at the height of the industrial revolution, the average American would find themselves working twelve hour days 7 days a week just to make ends meet and support themselves in a country that failed to value its “essential workers”. As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

The idea of the working mans holiday began to catch on in industrial cities across America but was not legalized by Congress until employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. Finally On June 26 1894, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. After the proverbial rubble cleared and dust settled, local government officials began working on making this day a national holiday to be recognized across the country. Sadly this sequence of events is no different to what we are seeing today when it comes to public outcry and the responding government action.

Given the systemic oppression of American citizens that are promised but not granted birth rights by simply being born in this country, it is easy to see why public disdain could easily turn violent but one thing that cannot be argued is that whatever rights are being fought for, there is power in numbers. For social activists and labor movement pioneers, the root of these movements is predicated on the idea of a common goal with unwavering support. Over just the past few months we have seen countless union victories ranging from small to large where these frontline workers are effectively utilizing their rights and this is no different than the recognition that their ancestors in the labor industry once fought for hundreds of years ago. Please visit out Facebook page (@LCLGPLLC) to see some of the recent monumental victories that have been won by labor organizations across the country

In the early part of this century the force of labor was vital in bringing about the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known whilst simultaneously leading us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker. This is a holiday to be remembered, celebrated but most importantly appreciated. So as you bury your sand in the toes this labor day and the many that will follow, please remember the fight that was fought so that we could lay back and enjoy this long holiday weekend.