Like many American civil rights, fair wages and decent working conditions came with a high cost to American workers.
Labor Day is a time to celebrate those struggles — to the death in some cases — and the victories of those immigrants who became Americans and who paved the way for an America where average workers could make a comfortable living without having been born into it.
Workers were killed by police during a strike at the McCormack Reaper Works in Chicago in 1886, and that resulted in the subsequent Haymarket Square riots the next day, according to history.com. When police tried to disperse the crowd several were killed when someone threw a bomb at them. Eight strikers were later convicted without evidence and seven of them got the death sentence.
Labor strife challenging the working conditions and hours imposed by companies during the Industrial Revolution continued for decades.
Congress finally realized the gravity of the situation when in May 1894 workers walked off the job at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago protesting the firing of union workers and wage cuts.
On June 26 Eugene Debs, American Railroad Worker president, called for a boycott of all Pullman railroad cars, halting traffic nationwide. Police were called out to break the strike and more riots resulted with the killing of a dozen workers.
Just two days later President Grover Cleveland approved Labor Day as a federal holiday. It’s not known who came up with the idea for a federal holiday for workers, but historians point to either Peter J. McGuire, founder of the American Federation of Labor or Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union.
The hard-fought battles are often taken for granted today. They are the start of the struggle that led to 40-hour weeks, overtime laws, paid sick time and vacation.
But now those who organize to back workers are few in number. Union membership has declined precipitously in the last 36 years. In 1983, 20 percent of American workers belonged to a union. In 2018 that number was 10.5 percent.
Still the battles continue. A fight for a $15 minimum wage has shown some success in larger metropolitan areas, like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Seattle, but that figure simply catches up for minimum wages that have remained stagnant for years.
Seven states have approved $15 minimum wage laws to take effect in 2025 or earlier. The higher minimum wage movement appears to be gaining momentum.
Still, Wall Street calls for higher profit often are louder than Main Street calls for higher wages.
On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the law to set Labor Day and other holidays for Mondays in order to create three-day weekends.
Enjoy your three-day weekend. Consider those who fought for it.