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August 28, 2007 > Labor Day: a tribute to American workers

Labor Day: a tribute to American workers

By Anuja Seith

Parks, beaches and backyards bustle with laughter and prattle as everyone clings to the last bit of summer vacation on Labor Day. Whether at a picnic, barbeque or by simply basking in warmth of soft pillows and cushions this holiday has roots in something far more serious. As you pamper yourself on this long weekend, spend a brief moment at least to turn the pages of history to commemorate those whose lives imprinted the first Monday of every September as a special day.

Roots of Labor Movement

The seeds of protest were sown in the earliest days of this country. Until the 19th century, much of the labor movement remained fragile even though printers, carpenters and cabinet makers went on strikes in New York and, Philadelphia from 1794 to 1799 in pursuit of shorter hours and higher wages.

The invention of the steam engine and growing use of power to operate machinery gave birth to a factory system that created both great prosperity and extreme poverty. With the 1820's, many unions fought to reduce working hours from 12 to 10 and began to consider the idea of forming a federation to achieve a common objective- prevent exploitation of workers and improve working conditions.

In 1886, labor unions were demanding an eight-hour day for which they called a general strike on May 1 in Chicago, a hub of labor radicalism during 1870's and 80's. Two days later the police got involved with the protestors, resulting in a death during a riot at the McCormick Reaper plant.

A few days later, the event reached its tragic climax when a bomb exploded at Haymarket Square, an open market, where crowds met to remonstrate against the killing at McCormick plant. Following the explosion, eight labor leaders and agitators were arrested; Judge Joseph E. Gray imposed death sentences on seven of them and the eighth was incarcerated for 15 years.

This verdict led to worldwide appeals for mercy and recognition of May 1 as an International Workers Day. Though an American tragedy sparked conception of May Day, American workers decided to celebrate their toil on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City in accordance with Central Labor Union. In 1884, the Union adopted the first Monday of September as Labor Day and urged other cities to observe that day as a "workingmen's holiday."

A nationwide holiday

The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. Inception of this national holiday is rooted in strike of Pullman's railroad sleeping car company in 1894 when workers revolted against massive layoffs and wage cuts resulting from the nationwide economic depression of 1893. The American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs supported striking workers. Swiftly, the strike became a national issue and President Grover Cleveland deployed troops to douse the 1894 firestorm resulting in the deaths of two protestors in Kensington, Chicago.

To strike a chord of reconciliation with Labor in anticipation of the national election of 1894, President Cleveland signed a bill observing Labor Day as a national holiday. Even though the gesture did not give Cleveland another term in office, the holiday has persevered.

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