On the first Monday of September every year, Americans observe Labor Day: a day to honor workers and their contribution to the prosperity of the United States.
Labor Day is the official end of summer. And although to many Americans, Labor Day is celebrated as a day off from work, and last of the summer’s opportunities for a cook-out or swim party with friends and family, the events that led to the creation of this holiday are wreathed in greed, civil unrest and blood.
The post-civil war decades of the 19th century are marked by the rise of so-called Captains of Industry: wealthy and powerful businessmen and industrialists, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who seized the opportunity presented by the confluence of a rapidly expanding economy, a slew of innovations and plentiful immigrant labor to build enormous business empires and amass huge fortunes. They provided much needed employment and opportunity, but their business practices were frequently rapacious and exploitative of the workers, who toiled in mills, factories and mines 12-hours a day, seven days per week and barely made enough money to survive.
Seeking to improve their lot, beginning in the late 1880s, workers began to join labor unions, some of which formed as early as the 18th century. The workers demanded better pay and treatment, safer working conditions and recognition for their contribution to America’s booming economy. When these demands were not met, they organized strikes. But this was a difficult and dangerous endeavor. Striking workers were frequently met by strike-breakers, armed thugs who were hired by company leadership to break heads and ensure the workers went back to their jobs. Injuring strikers was even encouraged.
One of the most notable incidents was the Pullman strike in Chicago, where federal troops brutally crushed a strike by railroad and Pullman sleeping car company workers, protesting the company’s wage cuts and lay-offs. Some 30 people were killed that day. Ironically, on the day of the strike, President Grover Cleveland signed into law legislation creating a national Labor Day holiday.
“Hard-working Americans are the backbone of our country… The middle class built America — and unions built the middle class,” said President Joe Biden. “Everything that supports a sustainable middle-class life was made possible by unions, and on Labor Day we honor all those workers — and their enduring movement — that keep our economy moving and make our Nation strong.”