While no one is quite sure to this day who is responsible for the first Labor Day, we do know that it became a national holiday on June 28, 1894.  The very first Labor Day celebration, on September 5, 1882, was planned by the Central Labor Union in New York City as a parade in which over 25,000 workers from all trades came out to take a day off the grinding 12-to-16-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week schedules common during the height of the Industrial Revolution.  There was also a heavy police presence, as industrialists and government authorities feared that the presence of so many workers might result in chaos.  Instead, the parade was followed by a picnic and party for those families who did not return to work.  The idea caught on, and by 1884, the holiday had become an annual tradition in New York and elsewhere. 

However, because the holiday was not an official one, workers had to take unpaid leave in order to participate.  Therefore, workers began pushing to make the holiday official.  In 1885 and 1886, some cities had made the holiday official, and in 1887, Oregon became the first state to pass a law making Labor Day a state holiday, followed in the same year by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

As relatively peaceful as the process was for creating the first Labor Day celebrations, the labor movement continued to experience violent opposition from strikebreakers as workers organized and demanded better pay and working conditions.  On May 1, 1886, workers occupied Haymarket Square in Chicago, demanding an eight-hour day; there were skirmishes between protesters and police during the several days of what has become known as the Haymarket Riot.  On May 4, a bomb detonated, killing seven police officers and up to eight citizens; no one has identified the perpetrator.  Somewhat ironically, the holiday known as May Day (International Workers’ Day), commemorating the Haymarket Riot, is more celebrated abroad than it is in the United States, where Labor Day is celebrated instead.  This is due in large part to President Grover Cleveland’s pressure on state legislatures to not adopt what he considered a “memorial to the Haymarket radicals” after an international gathering of socialists in Paris in 1889 officially adopted May Day as a holiday honoring workers’ rights.  By 1894, half the states had adopted the September Labor Day instead, which Cleveland had offered as an alternative.

While Cleveland may have forestalled recognition of May Day and the “Haymarket radicals,” the efforts of strikebreakers were still creating sympathy in the minds of many who were subject to unjust working conditions.  The final impetus for Congressional adoption of a federal holiday for Labor Day was the May 11, 1894 Chicago strike by workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, protesting their 16-hour days and low wages building rail cars.  They were joined in June by the American Railway Union, a powerful union whose members declined to attach one rail car to another during the strike, crippling rail traffic.  Seeking to appease the unions, particularly the ARU, Congress passed the bill granting federal holiday status to Labor Day, which had been languishing for ten months.  The bill passed quickly and Cleveland signed it on June 28, but on July 3, he sent federal troops to end the boycott.  This caused a riot, Cleveland called in the National Guard, and on July 7, Guardsmen fired into a crowd and killed as many as 30 people.

For more information about labor and employment law, check out our subject guides on Employment Discrimination Law, Labor and Employment Law, Labor Arbitration Resources, and Sexual Orientation and the Law.


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