Editor’s Note: This is an updated column that was originally published in 2020.
The U.S. Department of Labor says that the first “Labor Day,” celebration, and parade, took place in New York on Sept. 5, 1882.
Reports stated that 10,000-20,000 participated in the parade through lower Manhattan and that some 25,000 partied afterward until 9 p.m. at Wendel’s Elm Park, where a picnic was held, speeches were made, and kegs of beer were everywhere.
Just deciding to have a parade isn’t what really created Labor Day, however.
Back then there were a lot of self-proclaimed anarchists, socialists and communists in this country who accused capitalists of exploiting their workers.
And guess what! They weren’t wrong!
The 1880s saw lots of labor strikes, and demands by workers that something be done about the long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions they were expected to endure.
Capitalists don’t respond well to demands, however. They’re a lot like anarchists that way. But, if there are laws to force them to do the right thing, they’ll generally do it as long as it’s cheaper in the long run than paying the penalties for ignoring those laws.
So, as Labor Day began to be celebrated more each year throughout this country with municipal and statewide declarations, bloody battles were being fought in the streets between workers, bosses, hired goons, soldiers, and law enforcement. And laws started to be written.
On May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago, workers gathered to protest the killing and wounding of workers by police during a strike the day before at McCormick Reaper Works. There were calls for workers to take up arms. As police moved in at the close of the rally, someone set off a bomb – no one to this day knows who – then shots were fired by police, and apparently from the crowd. Seven officers and at least four protesters were killed. There were many injuries.
By August, seven men who were described as anarchists were convicted of murder over the Haymarket Riot, and an eighth man was sentenced to 15 years in prison while the others received death sentences.
The trial and convictions were highly questioned as to whether they were fair, and were widely criticized for being improper as time went by.
In November 1887 four of the men convicted over the riot were hanged. Another one killed himself in jail. The other two with death sentences wound up being pardoned when a new, pro-labor governor took office in Illinois.
In 1893 workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company were laid off due to an economic recession. At the same time George Pullman, who owned the railroad car company, refused to lower the rent where his employees lived, or the store prices where they had to shop in the town named after him, Pullman, Illinois, just south of Chicago.
Pullman also cut wages for those who were still employed. They walked off the job in May 1894, and the American Railway Union declared a sympathy boycott of all trains using Pullman cars, according to information from history.com. This effectively halted rail traffic from Chicago to the West Coast, and the General Managers Association asked the government to stop the strike.
U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney got an injunction against the strike from federal district court, and President Stephen Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to enforce it. This made the Illinois pro-labor governor, John Peter Altgeld, who had pardoned the surviving convicted Haymarket Riot guys, extremely angry. He had already called in state militia troops to prevent violence.
But there was blood anyway.
Rioters destroyed hundreds of railcars in South Chicago, and National Guardsmen fired on a mob, killing at least 30 people and wounding many others.
In the meantime Congress had passed legislation making the first Monday in September a federal legal holiday to recognize and celebrate labor. Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28, 1894, just before he sent federal troops to Chicago.
That’s just two examples of violent labor clashes in this country. If you want to learn more, search for books, documentaries, or articles about the 1892 steel workers strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, or the Ludlow, Colorado, massacre of 1914, the deadly strike in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920, or the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago, 1937.
Workers in this country have always had to fight to keep from being exploited. We can thank labor movements for eventually being responsible for federal laws in place that address things like minimum wage, health coverage, Social Security, unemployment benefits, whistleblower protections, family leave, employment-based discrimination and workplace safety.
Contact Steve Gillespie at editor@ paragoulddailypress.com.