Oregon the first state to recognize Labor Day as a holiday
Summer’s last hurrah — Labor Day — is coming up this weekend
As holidays go, this one is a little different. On January 1, we celebrate a new year. February is the month we honor presidents. In May, we observe Memorial Day and those who have served our country. July is the really big holiday where patriotism rules and we celebrate the founding of our country.
And then comes Labor Day, on the first Monday in Sept., when we celebrate our friends and neighbors — the millions and millions of grassroots working men and women who have physically worked to build our nation into what it is today and continue to do so.
Of course, strictly speaking, there are no national holidays. There are holidays legally designated by the United States Congress for federal employees and the District of Colombia. However, each state must designate a federal or its own holidays through the legislative process or by executive order.
I remember a lot about other holidays but not much about Labor Day. So I looked up its history and was surprised to discover that Labor Day was established by Oregon in 1887 before it became a so-called national holiday. I was also reminded that this tribute to American workers was an ugly, hard fought battle.
The movement for a national Labor Day and better treatment for workers first began in other countries, Canada, established its holiday in the 1870s. Here in America, a Labor Day holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882, when New York City workers took an unpaid day off. In a demonstration and picnic planned by the Central Labor Union they marched around Union Square in support of a workingmen’s holiday.
At that time, as you may remember, the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam. Millions of workers were trapped in dirty, dangerous jobs. They worked six days a week, 10-16 hours a day, at poverty wages. Employers resisted shorter days and a living wage. No wonder workers sought union advocates to champion their cause.
In 1886 a rally was held at Haymarket Square to explain the concept of the 8-hour day. Police suddenly marched against the peaceful assembly, someone threw a bomb, the police opened fire, and many of their own men and unarmed civilians were killed. Hysteria and arrests followed. The cause seemed lost.
Eventually, it took a strike by the Pullman American Railroad Union to get a reluctant President Grover Cleveland to declare Labor Day a national holiday in 1894.
We don’t often hear the word ‘Pullman’ anymore but back in the day when railroad travel was king, so was Pullman. George Pullman was president of his railroad sleeping car company. Pullman, Illinois, was a company town founded by him in 1880. The town he designed and built was meant to stand as a utopian workers’ community; to be insulated from the moral and political seductions of nearby Chicago.
Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks were drawn from the Pullman bank and their rent (set by Pullman), deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. Everything operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.
A dozen years later, there was a nationwide depression. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined and Mr. Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of his employees. Those who remained had their wages cut and paychecks barely covered their rent (which remained consistent).
So, one day the employees walked out, realistically demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railroad Union representative rallied to the cause of the striking workers as tension escalated. But across the nation, non-union railroad workers boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Mobs of non-union workers joined in rioting, pillaging and burning railroad cars.
The strike had unexpectedly turned nasty and quickly became a national issue. So President Grover Cleveland, not wanting to interrupt mail trains or face the wrath of nervous railroad executives declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break it up. U.S. Marshalls near Chicago killed two protestors and the sheer strength of numbers and firepower overcame the strikers.
As a result, the strike was declared over, the union representative went to jail and the union disbanded. The Pullman employees signed an agreement not to re-unionize and most other industrial workers’ unions were stamped out. But just for a time.
However, the country wasn’t happy with the harsh methods used by Cleveland and it became clear that if he were going to win the upcoming election (he lost) that he would have to appease the nation’s workers. Immediately, a Labor Day legislation was rushed through both houses of Congress and put on President Cleveland’s desk. He signed it just six days after the bloody Pullman strike was broken.
A September Labor Day was established that In 1898, union leader Samuel Gompers called “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed … and they lay down their tools of labor for a holiday …”
All that bad history seems to be forgotten in this civilized time of minimum wages, civil rights, equal pay for women and laws against child labor. But let’s not forget that in 1887 Oregon was a forerunner in showing respect for the common laborer. Makes you kinda proud, doesn’t it?
This Labor Day, as we bid farewell to summer, let us also take a moment to pay tribute to the American worker. Where would this country be without those who long ago, with only primitive tools blasted rock to build bridges, risked life and limb to construct dams, skyscrapers, railroad lines and roads? What would we do today without the plumbers, the electricians, the home-builders or even those who grow our food? We are in their debt. I salute you all!