The Origins of Labor Day

Labor Day was not an invention of the Hot Dog lobby strong arming congress to boost sales. Surprising as it may be, the history of Labor Day spans over 100 years and comes from the debate between labor unions and the government. As this article from PBS NEWSHOUR explains, the holiday came from a concession between the American Railway Union and George Pullman of the railroad sleeping car company. The story goes like this: Pullman created a town (yes, called Pullman) which was strictly for his employees. The bank was his, the houses they rented, and even the store: all Pullman owned. While this worked out well to start with, but a national economic depression forced Pullman to lay off workers and increase rent. The workers began walking out and demanding higher pay (this is where the American Railway Union stepped in). Soon there were riots, destruction, and pillaging in the town of Pullman. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 troops to break up the strike, and when it was all said and done the workers signed an agreement saying they wouldn’t ever unionize again. However, President Cleveland’s harsh judgment on the protestors caused more of an uproar than what he perhaps expected: The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike. 1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected. While the day carries almost none of the political maelstrom it was born from all those years ago, it still remains today as a time to lighten the load from work and spend time with friends and family — and, of course, take part in lighthearted conversation. So consider bringing up the topic of how Labor Day was created while you fire up the grill.

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