Celebrated annually as a public holiday on the first Monday in September, Labor Day signifies the end of summer for many in the USA. The first Labor Day, however, was held on a Tuesday in 1882.
In “pursuit of happiness” through shorter hours and higher pay, printers were the first to go on a strike, in New York in 1794; cabinet makers went on strike in 1796; carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797; cordwainers in 1799. In the early 19th century, action by unions to improve workers’ conditions through negotiation or strike became more frequent. By the 1820s, various unions involved in the effort to reduce the working day from 12 to 10 hours began to show interest in a federation for working people. The National Trades’ Union was formed in 1834 but disbanded in 1837. In 1866, several associations of unions gathered in Baltimore to form the National Labor Union but it lasted only 7 years.
The first successful united labor movement took hold at Pittsburgh on 15 November 1881. Delegates from the carpenters, cigar makers, printers, merchant seamen, and steel workers created the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The first chairman was 31-year old Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, with Peter McGuire assisting. In 1882 the Federation extended to “all women’s labor organizations representation on an equal footing” and called on a celebration of workers’ efforts. The first Labor Day was held on Tuesday 5 September 1882 in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union.
In l884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday by the union. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in l885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers around the country. Some records show that McGuire first suggested a national labor day, while others believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, founded the celebration.
On 8 December 1886, the Federation met with more unions in Columbus, Ohio to create the American Federation of Labor, with Gompers as president and McGuire as general secretary.
In 1894, the American Railroad Union went on strike in Pullman, a factory town in Illinois that was was created and controlled by a company that produced railroad cars. Unions throughout the industry went on strike in solidarity. Demonstrations and mob violence broke out, disrupting rail travel and mail services. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed the strike a federal crime and deployed troops to break it. A sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the strike, illustrating that injunctions had become a prime weapon against union action. The Pullman episode left an uneasy feeling in the nation. President Cleveland then opted to mend broken fences, and on 28 June 1894, Congress passed an act confirming the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
Today, the US Labor Day is not typically seen as a day for political organizing. It is more synonymous with barbecues, congested highways, and the last long weekend of summer.
Workers played an important role in US independence. Disguised as Mohawk Indians, carpenters were the host group at the Boston Tea Party, 1773. The Declaration of Independence was signed in the Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, 1776.
More than 90% of the 34 million Americans who travel over the Labor Day holiday, do so by car.
The Internet will have a significant impact on the influence of labor unions. Better communication between workers (wherever they work from), access to company information and global awareness of workers’ rights promise to strengthen the power of the people.