Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country," said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. "All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
Seven days after President Grover Cleveland signed a bill designating the first Monday in September as a national holiday honoring workers, he sent the Army to quell a rebellion by striking Pullman workers. Thirteen strikers were killed by the soldiers; union activist Eugene Debs went to jail because he refused to call a halt to the American Railway Workers' strike in Chicago. How about the date of that strike-breaking action? July 4, 1894. Independence Day, just two months before the first official national Labor Day was celebrated.
But Labor Day certainly wasn't an idea sprung from the head of Congress and shoved under the pen of President Cleveland. Matthew Maguire, a New Jersey machinist, and Peter J. McGuire, a New York carpenter who co-founded the precursor to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), decided something should be done to mark the strides already made toward creating a better workplace in America.
More than one hundred years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for the working people in the United States.
Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from agitating corporations all these years have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold today."
But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.
Working with the Central Labor Union of New York, Matthew and Peter McGuire organized the country's first Labor Day parade -- 10,000 people took to the streets of New York City on September 5, 1882, and the holiday was born, at least unofficially.
Union organizing has always been volatile. In a 1920s a labor dispute in the town of Matewan, West Virginia a coal town where the local miners' lives were controlled by the powerful Stone Mountain Coal Company. An organizer, Joe Kenehan arrived in Matewan, West Virginia, to organizer miners. The strikers and their families were removed from their homes by two coal company mercenaries Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, and the situation moved toward a final shootout on Matewan's main street. Many workers were killed and others lives were changed forever…
Then there were strikes -- like the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894 -- where the strikes often met with violence. And employers sometimes used tragic means to keep unions from gaining a toehold in their companies.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 cost 146 people, mostly women, their lives. What was the reason? Many of the sweatshop's doors were locked. It was standard procedure back then to keep pesky union organizers out and employees under strict control at all times…
So the labor union movement in America, despite reaching a high of 21.7 million members in 1978, has never fully taken hold. In the United States, it's a love it or hate it situation when it comes to labor unions. It has been this way since the movement's furtive beginnings in the mid-1800s. But Labor Day rolls around every year and we will get a long weekend once more.
I encourage all workers to remember the gains that might not have occurred, if the workers, men and women in the labor unions hadn't been fighting and agitating our corporations and our U.S. representatives:
- 40 hour work week
- Fair working wages
- Unemployment insurance
- Pensions and Benefits
- Workman's compensation
And most citizens of the United States take for granted labor laws which protect them from unregulated industry. Perhaps the majority of those who argue for "free enterprise" and the removal of restrictions on capitalist corporations are unaware that in the last 120 years, workers in this country have fought and sometimes died for protection from capitalist industry. In many instances, government troops were called out to crush strikes, at times firing on protesters. Here are a few of the many incidents in the (too often overlooked) tumultuous labor history of this country.
An Eclectic List of Events in U.S. Labor History 1806 – 2007
The union of Philadelphia Journeymen Cordwainers was convicted of and bankrupted by charges of criminal conspiracy after a strike for higher wages, setting a precedent by which the U.S. government would combat unions for years to come.
April 27, 1825
The first strike for the 10-hour work-day occurred by carpenters in Boston.
July 3, 1835
Children employed in the silk mills in Paterson, NJ went on strike for the 11 hour day/6 day week.
Two railroad strikers were shot dead and others injured by the state militia in Portage, New York.
800 women operatives and 4,000 workmen marched during a shoemaker's strike in Lynn, Massachusetts.
January 13, 1874
The original Tompkins Square Riot. As unemployed workers demonstrated in New York's Tompkins Square Park, a detachment of mounted police charged into the crowd, beating men, women and children indiscriminately with Billy clubs and leaving hundreds of casualties in their wake. Commented Abram Duryee, the Commissioner of Police: "It was the most glorious sight I ever saw..."
February 12, 1877
U.S. railroad workers began strikes to protest wage cuts.
June 21, 1877
Ten coal-mining activists ("Molly Maguire’s") were hanged in Pennsylvania.
July 14, 1877
A general strike halted the movement of U.S. railroads. In the following days, strike riots spread across the United States. The next week, federal troops were called out to force an end to the nationwide strike. At the
"Battle of the Viaduct" in Chicago, federal troops (recently returned from an Indian massacre) killed 30 workers and wounded over 100.
September 5, 1882
Thirty thousand workers marched in the first Labor Day parade in New York City.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, forerunner of the AFL, passed a resolution stating that "8 hours shall constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886." Though the Federation did not intend to stimulate a mass insurgency, its resolution had precisely that effect.
Late 1885/Early 1886
Hundreds of thousands of American workers, increasingly determined to resist subjugation to capitalist power, poured into a fledgling labor organization, the Knights of Labor. Beginning on May 1, 1886, they took to the streets to demand the universal adoption of the eight hour day.
Chicago was the center of the movement. Workers there had been agitating for an eight hour day for months, and on the eve of May 1, 50,000 workers were already on strike. 30,000 more swelled their ranks the next day, bringing most of Chicago manufacturing to a standstill. Fears of violent class conflict gripped the city.
No violence occurred on May 1 -- a Saturday -- or May 2. But on Monday, May 3, a fight involving hundreds broke out at McCormick Reaper between locked-out unionists and the non-unionist workers McCormick hired to replace them. The Chicago police, swollen in number and heavily armed, quickly moved in with clubs and guns to restore order. They left four unionists dead and many others wounded.
Angered by the deadly force of the police, a group of anarchists, led by August Spies and Albert Parsons, called on workers to arm themselves and participate in a massive protest demonstration in Haymarket Square on Tuesday evening, May 4. The demonstration appeared to be a complete bust, with only 3,000 assembling. But near the end of the evening, an individual, whose identity is still in dispute, threw a bomb that killed seven policemen and injured 67 others. Hysterical city and state government officials rounded up eight anarchists, tried them for murder, and sentenced them to death.
On November 11, 1887, four of them, including Parsons and Spies, were executed. All of the executed advocated armed struggle and violence as revolutionary methods, but their prosecutors found no evidence that any had actually thrown the Haymarket bomb. They died for their words, not their deeds. A quarter of a million people lined Chicago's street during Parson's funeral procession to express their outrage at this gross miscarriage of justice.
For radicals and trade unionists everywhere, Haymarket became a symbol of the stark inequality and injustice of capitalist society. The May 1886 Chicago events figured prominently in the decision of the founding congress of the Second International (Paris, 1889) to make May 1, 1890 a demonstration of the solidarity and power of the international working class movement. May Day has been a celebration of international socialism and (after 1917) international communism ever since.
October 4, 1887
The Louisiana Militia, aided by bands of "prominent citizens," shot 35 unarmed black sugar workers striking to gain a dollar-per-day wage, and lynched two strike leaders.
July 25, 1890
New York garment workers won the right to unionize after a seven-month strike. They secured agreements for a closed shop, and firing of all scabs.
July 6, 1892
The Homestead Strike. Pinkerton Guards, trying to pave the way for the introduction of scabs, opened fire on striking Carnegie mill steel- workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In the ensuing battle, three Pinkertons surrendered; then, unarmed, they were set upon and beaten by a mob of townspeople, most of them women. Seven guards and eleven strikers and spectators were shot to death.
July 11, 1892
Striking miners in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho dynamited the Frisco Mill, leaving it in ruins.
July 5, 1893
During a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company, which had drastically reduced wages, the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago's Jackson Park was set ablaze, and seven buildings were reduced to ashes. The mobs raged on, burning and looting railroad cars and fighting police in the streets, until 10 July, when 14,000 federal and state troops finally succeeded in putting down the strike.
Federal troops killed 34 American Railway Union members in the Chicago area attempting to break a strike, led by Eugene Debs, against the Pullman Company. Debs and several others were imprisoned for violating injunctions, causing disintegration of the union.
September 21, 1896
The state militia was sent to Leadville, Colorado to break a miner's strike.
September 10, 1897
19 striking miners were killed and 40 wounded by the sheriff and his deputies for refusing to disperse near Lattimer, Pennsylvania. The strikers, most of who were shot in the back, were originally brought in as strike-breakers, but later organized themselves.
A portion of the Erdman Act, which would have made it a criminal offense for railroads to dismiss employees or discriminate against prospective employees based on their union activities, was declared invalid by the United States Supreme Court.
October 12, 1898
Fourteen were killed, 25 wounded in violence resulting when Virden, Illinois mine owners attempted to break a strike by importing 200 nonunion black workers.
April 29, 1899
When their demand that only union men be employed was refused, members of the Western Federation of Miners dynamited the $250,000 mill of the Bunker Hill Company at Wardner, Idaho, destroying it completely. President McKinley responded by sending in black soldiers from Brownsville, Texas with orders to round up thousands of miners and confines them in specially built "bullpens."
1899 and 1901
U.S. Army troops occupied the Coeur d'Alene mining region in Idaho.
October 12, 1902
Fourteen miners were killed and 22 wounded by scab herders at Pana, Illinois.
November 23, 1903
Troops were dispatched to Cripple Creek, Colorado to control rioting by striking coal miners.
February 23, 1904
William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle began publishing articles on the menace of Japanese laborers, leading to a resolution of the California Legislature that action should be taken against their immigration.
June 8, 1904
A battle between the Colorado Militia and striking miners at Dunnville ended with six union members' dead and 15 taken as prisoner. Seventy-nine of the strikers were deported to Kansas two days later.
The Supreme Court held that a maximum hour’s law for bakery workers was unconstitutional under the due process clause of the 14th amendment.
The Erdman Act was further weakened when Section 10 was declared unconstitutional. This section had made it illegal for railroad employers to fire employees for being involved in union activities (see 1898).
November 22, 1909
The "Uprising of the 20,000" female garment workers went on strike in New York; many were arrested. A judge told those arrested: "You are on strike against God."
December 25, 1910
A dynamite bomb destroyed a portion of the Llewellyn Ironworks in Los Angeles, where a bitter strike was in progress.
The Supreme Court ordered the AFL to cease its promotion of a boycott against the Bucks Stove and Range Company. A contempt charge against union leaders (including AFL President Samuel Gompers) was dismissed on technical grounds.
March 25, 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, occupying the top three floors of a ten-story building in New York City, was consumed by fire. One hundred and forty-seven people, mostly women and young girls working in sweatshop conditions, lost their lives. Approximately 50 died as they leapt from windows to the street; the others were burned or trampled to death as they desperately attempted to escape through stairway exits locked as a precaution against "the interruption of work".
December 2, 1911
A Chicago "slugger," paid $50 by labor unions for every scab he "discouraged," described his job in an interview – "Oh, there ain't nothin' to it. I get my fifty, and then I go out and find the guy they wanna have slugged. I goes up to `im and I says to `im, `My friend, by way of meaning no harm,' and then I gives it to `im -- biff! in the mug. Nothin' to it." –
February 24, 1912
Women and children were beaten by police during a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
April 18, 1912
The National Guard was called out against striking West Virginia coal miners.
June 11, 191?
Police shot three maritime workers (one of whom was killed) who were striking against the United Fruit Company in New Orleans.
January 5, 1914
The Ford Motor Company raised its basic wage from $2.40 for a nine hour day to $5 for an eight hour day.
April 20, 1914
The "Ludlow Massacre" In an attempt to persuade strikers at Colorado's Ludlow Mine Field to return to work, company "guards," engaged by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and other mine operators and sworn into the State Militia just for the occasion, attacked a union tent camp with machine guns, then set it afire. Five men, two women and 12 children died as a result.
January 19, 1915
World famous labor leader Joe Hill was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City. He was convicted on trumped up murder charges, and was executed despite worldwide protests and two attempts to intervene by President Woodrow Wilson. In a letter to Bill Haywood shortly before his death he penned the famous words, "Don't mourn - organize!" On this same day, twenty rioting strikers were shot by factory guards at Roosevelt, New Jersey.
July 22, 1916
A bomb was set off during a "Preparedness Day" parade in San Francisco, killing 10 and injuring 40 more. Thomas J. Mooney, a labor organizer and Warren K. Billings, a shoe worker, were convicted, but were both pardoned in 1939.
July 12, 1917
Several thousand armed vigilantes rounded up 1,200 members of the Industrial Workers of the World in Bisbee, Arizona and herded them into boxcars to be shipped off and dumped in the New Mexico desert. The IWW had called a strike against the Bisbee copper mines two weeks earlier; patriotism and support for the war effort were cited as reasons for the action.
March 15, 1917
The Supreme Court approved the Eight-Hour Act under the threat of a national railway strike.
August 1, 1917
IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana.
September 5, 1917
Federal agents raided the IWW headquarters in 48 cities.
June 3, 1918
A Federal child labor law, enacted two years earlier, was declared unconstitutional. A new law was enacted 24 February 1919, but this one too was declared unconstitutional (on 2 June 1924).
July 27, 1918
United Mine Workers organizer Ginger Goodwin was shot by a hired private policeman outside Cumberland, British Columbia.
August 26, 1919
United Mine Worker organizer Fannie Sellins was gunned down by company guards in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania.
September 9, 1919
When the police commissioner refused to allow Boston patrolmen to unionize, three quarters of the force went out on strike, an action that precipitated widespread looting by the citizenry. Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge put down the strike by calling out the entire state militia.
September 8, 1997 - 2007
Most people today lounge around and watch television, while many retail and fast food service workers put in a regular eight hour or more work day.
If you are one that is benefiting from a long weekend, I encourage you to remember who it was that made this summer-ending holiday possible – the American men and women workers who make up Middle Class America today... ENJOY!
An Eclectic List of Events in U.S. Labor History 1806-1997, compiled by Allen Lutins