This is my latest iteration of my Labor Day history, which I have posted here on several Labor Days, and also on Yahoo Voices.
In these days when Labor Day is generally marked by barbeques and sales, it is easy to forget that the holiday was first celebrated in the throes of the labor movement. It was meant to honor workers and their rights to organize and have a day of leisure to spend with their families. These rights were slowly being won, but not without sacrifice and blood.
The first Labor Day in the US was celebrated in 1882 in New York City, with a parade from City Hall to Union Square. The day was Tuesday, September 5, and the march was organized by the Central Labor Union. The idea has been attributed to two labor organizers, Peter Maguire who was one of the founders of the AFL, or Matthew Maguire, who at the time was Secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York City. The following year, another parade was held on September 5; in 1884 it was moved to the first Monday in September. A movement began for legislation to make the day official, at first as a state holiday in several states. In 1886, a General Strike eventually led to the establishment of the 8-hour work day. The first state to make Labor Day a holiday was Oregon, on February 21, 1887.
Attempts to make it a federal holiday were unsuccessful. Then in 1894 the Pullman car workers went on strike in Chicago, effectively shutting down rail traffic out of the city. On July 4 (ironically) President Cleveland sent in the National Guard which violently broke up the strike. The leaders, including Eugene V. Debs, were arrested. The nation's attention became drawn to labor, and on June 28, 1894 Congress passed Labor Day into law. There was some controversy about when the holiday should be, with the international unions wanting May 1, which in Europe was becoming Labor's celebration. President Cleveland was one of the voices against this, and the first Monday in September prevailed. Many complain that we should celebrate labor with the rest of the world on May 1st, but the first Monday in September is the day American labor originally chose for itself. Whatever Cleveland's motivations for opposing May 1st, we have reason to celebrate this day.
This year, with the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom, we have had many commemorations honoring Martin Luther King, who is now the best known organizer of the March, but the idea came from A. Philip Randolph, international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, vice president of the AFL-CIO, and the elder statesman of the civil rights movement.
The labor movement continues, with Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta organizing the United Farm Workers in the 1960's and 1970's, and the Service Workers' International Union more recently. When Ronald Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers' strike, he marked a government shift away from supportive labor policies that still continues. We see it in Wisconsin's protests, in "education reform" circles, in "right to work" laws. Current strikes of fast food workers and Walmart workers as well as fights over the minimum wage are the latest efforts by exploited workers to organize. Unionized workers are only a small percentage of all workers today. The labor movement is not a piece of our history, it still goes on.
So this year let us mark Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, as we mark Memorial Day, its unofficial beginning - remembering fallen heroes.