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Labor Day: A History of the Holiday


With Labor Day 2019 upon us, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody looks back at the history of the holiday, and how Americans have come to celebrate it on the first Monday of September.

Labor Day is just that – a day set aside to honor the American labor movement and its workers’ contributions in areas such as prosperity, productivity, laws, strength and well-being of country, among others. It’s a three-day weekend in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. possessions, and at the federal level.

“What we really have to understand is that this is a holiday that in many ways was an attempt to honor working people, but also to appease them; to kind of give them something [by] saying, ‘hey, we’re really celebrating you’ without giving them anything,” said Andy Barbero, an historian at Pensacola State College.

The idea of a Labor Day goes back to 1877, when the nation was transitioning from Reconstruction to the rise of the Industrial Revolution -- and the first large-scale national workers’ strike, four years after the first national depression in 1873.

“Workers for the first time got laid off in large numbers; they say their wages cut, they saw their workday cut,” Barbero said. “It caused a chain-reaction – workers in West Virginia blocked the railway – and it quickly spread down the tracks and across the country in other industries. Like river shipping and the timber industry. And it shut down the nation’s infrastructure.”

That, says Barbero, was the first time Americans began to think in terms of solidarity with each other – the “working class.”

There remains to this day some disagreement over just who began Labor Day – either the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, or the American Federation of Labor. For Barbero, it’s 6-to-5 and pick ‘em.

“Peter Maguire was the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor; this is a really more conservative skilled trade union organization,” said Barbero. “And Matthew Maguire [of the Knights of Labor], he was more into organizing in the factory. And really, this is one of those great things that we’ll just never really know.”

Credit fineartamerica.com
Haymarket Square Riot, Chicago, May of 1886.

Many consider the lynchpin of the labor movement to be the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago in May, 1886. At issue – a one-day nationwide strike by the Knights of Labor, demanding an eight-hour workday. But anarchists get involved, the police attack the demonstrators, and people die in the violence. Haymarket gives the labor movement a “really bad name” and a shift in how labor is celebrated in the U.S.

“May 1st is Labour Day – L-A-B-O-U-R – it’s International Workers Day; we don’t celebrate that here,” says Barbero. “We have L-A-B-O-R Day. And Labor Day was actually the product of [President] Grover Cleveland in 1894.”

President Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the riots. May Day celebrations have diminished in the United States, because of the creation of Labor Day. Seven years earlier, in 1887, heavily-industrialized and unionized Oregon became the first state to observe the holiday.

“In Oregon you have the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] – the ‘Wobblies,’” said Barbero. “I’m not sure about Florida but most states, especially southern states, they didn’t adopt Labor Day until Grover Cleveland in 1894 because the labor movement really didn’t have much power in the South, [which was] mostly agricultural with black labor, most of the agricultural workers being sharecroppers.”

That was then, this is 2019. Labor Day activities pretty much duplicate those enjoyed on July 4 – time off to spend with family and to do fun stuff.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Andy Barbero, Pensacola State College historian.

“The parades and the celebrations and the picnics and the barbecues; I think why [Labor Day] gets so big and why it takes on such a form is because trade unions are community entities,” said Barbero. “Everybody’s uncle, their brother, their father; everybody’s involved with the union, one way or another. And it’s about a celebration of family as well.”

But this is not your grandfather’s Labor Day. Unions have been diminished over the decades, and many of them are under siege today from various forces, including government.

“Today, the most prevalent kind of national coverage that unions are getting are because the FBI’s arresting leaders for corruption in the UAW [United Auto Workers],” Barbero said. “But back then, this was the common man’s holiday. This was his time to celebrate himself as the working man in America who had, through his own hard work, had taken care of himself, taken care of his family, and had the fruits of his labor to enjoy.”

Labor Day was also about ethnic traditions, says Barbero. Locals were representative of the customs of the people that were among them.

“You’ve got lots and lots of overlap between ethnic Irish celebrations and labor celebrations – especially in places like Indiana and Illinois,” Barbero said. “Between Italian celebrations and labor celebrations when you look in the big cities of Chicago and New York. A uniquely American holiday.”

If you dive into Labor Day’s history, says Pensacola State’s Andy Barbero, it really reflects the differences various people brought with them and the contributions they made to their adopted country – the people who built America.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.