Labor Day’s beginnings as a presidential apology

September 2, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryThis Monday is Labor Day, marking, for most Americans, the end of summer.

As one would assume, though, the holiday didn’t start that way.

Labor Day has its origins in the late 19th century, a time period that saw very little protection for American workers, with most working 12- to 14-hour days seven days a week in conditions that were unsanitary, unhealthy, and often dangerous.

It was also during this time that labor unions started gaining considerable strength due to the large influx of workers to urban areas from rural ones.

Using this newfound strength, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later known as the American Federation of Labor) declared during its 1884 convention that May 1, 1886 was to be the start of the 8-hour work day.

This change was, unsurprisingly, not supported by employers, and labor unions prepared for a general strike on that date in support of it.

On the actual day of the strike, hundreds of thousands of workers joined in.

The event became particularly significant in Chicago, where, after the police attempted to disburse the crowd at Haymarket Square and a pipe bomb was thrown, the police opened fire on the crowd, killing several civilians as well as police officers.

Eight men were convicted of murder of the police officer killed by the bomb, with four sentenced to execution by hanging, and a fifth committing suicide in prison the night before the executions.

The prosecution conceded that none of the men had actually thrown the bomb.

In memory of the event, which became known as the Haymarket Affair, the Second International (later the International Working Union of Socialist Parties) declared May 1 “International Workers’ Day,” and it became a day for labor rallies all over the world.

Haymarket Affair

1886 engraving of the Haymarket affair.

This date was, at the time, more widely observed as a “labor day” than the actual Labor Day itself, which was first observed on September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York.

All of that changed in 1894, however.

Millions of workers were left jobless or with marked pay cuts due to the recession of 1893, causing the May Day labor demonstrations of 1894 to be especially sizeable.

Chicago, again, was at the epicenter of the rallies.

The combination of striking workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company and Eugene Debs’ American Railroad Union effectively stopped all rail traffic out of Chicago.

President Grover Cleveland took notice, and his reaction wasn’t pleasant: he declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break it up.

Days after the strike was put down, Cleveland, seeking to diffuse labor anger over his austere reaction to the strikes, pushed for a nationally recognized Labor Day.

It passed Congress unanimously, and was declared officially on June 28th, 1894, only six days after the end of the strike.

Although, as most should be aware, the date chosen as “Labor Day” by Cleveland was not May 1, but opted for the lesser observed date of the first Monday in September.

The reason for this choice should be apparent: Cleveland wanted to disassociate the memory of May 1’s Haymarket Affair from any future labor celebrations/protests.

Cleveland was largely successful: not only is knowledge of the Haymarket Affair limited mainly to historians and labor activists, but Labor Day is primarily observed with barbeques and vacation.

Even if relaxation is the meaning of Labor Day to most Americans, they have the labor movement to thank for having that relaxation time to begin with.