How Labor Day got its violent start
WASHINGTON — For Laura and Brian
Lane of Milton, Pa., the Labor Day holiday is usually a day to just kick back with family.
"It's a great way to wrap up summer and put a bookend on it," Brian Lane says. This year the family decided to take son Jackson, 4, to the nation's capital for the weekend.
"Christmas and Thanksgiving are kind of commercialized," he said Saturday as an exuberant Jackson bounced up and down on the sidewalk outside the White House, waiting for the chance to see the "gigantic" dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. "This is more about people."
Labor Day for many is all about a last blast at the beach with family and friends, backyard barbecues, school retail bonanzas and the grudging realization that sun-soaked play days are no more.
But the day has a deeper meaning and marks a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history — and it had a pretty violent start.
In the late 1800s, the state of labor was grim as U.S. workers toiled under bleak conditions: 12 or more hour workdays; hazardous work environments; meager pay. Children, some as young as 5, were often fixtures at plants and factories.
The dismal livelihoods fueled the formation of the country’s first labor unions, which began to organize strikes and protests and pushed employers for better hours and pay. Many of the rallies turned violent.
On Sept. 5, 1882 — a Tuesday — 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in a parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City as a tribute to American workers. Organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, It was the country’s first unofficial Labor Day parade. Three years later, some city ordinances marked the first government recognition, and legislation soon followed in a number of states.
Then came May 11, 1894, and a strike that shook an Illinois town founded by George Pullman, an engineer and industrialist who created the railroad sleeping car. The community, located on the Southside of Chicago, was designed as a “company town” in which most of the factory workers who built Pullman cars lived.
When wage cuts hit, 4,000 workers staged a strike that pitted the American Railway Union vs. the Pullman Company and the federal government. The strike and boycott against trains triggered a nationwide transportation nightmare for freight and passenger traffic
At its peak, the strike involved about 250,000 workers in more than 25 states. Riots broke out in many cities; President Grover Cleveland called in Army troops to break the strikers; more than a dozen people were killed in the unrest.
After the turbulence, Congress, at the urging of Cleveland in an overture to the labor movement, passed an act on June 28, 1894, making the first Monday in September “Labor Day.” It was now a legal holiday.
In the coming decades, the day took root in American culture as the "unofficial end of summer" and was marked by parades, picnics and family/friend time.
This year, Labor Day has a deeper meaning for Jim Francis and Arlene Persach of New York. Francis' father, a captain in the Navy, was buried at Arlington Cemetery outside the nation's capital in a moving service on Thursday, a few days before the holiday.
Persach says the history of the holiday should not be overlooked. It is a "guarantee of freedom" for all U.S. workers and a chance to "honor that history of America."
But for others enduring tough times — not unlike those long-ago Americans in the 1800s — there is little to relish.
Shawn O'Brien of Riverside, Calif., has been living on the streets of Washington, D.C., since April. As he rested on a park bench in Lafayette Square reading a book, he pondered the question of what Labor Day means and shook his head. "I'm not working," O'Brien said. " For me, all days are pretty much the same."
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