CNN U.S. News

What's with this day off for Labor Day?

September 3, 1995


From KC Wildmoon

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Labor Day. Picnics, barbecues, massive department store sales. What's this got to do with work? Has the country collectively lost sight of the meaning of one of its most enduring holidays?

Maybe Labor Day has always been a little misunderstood. Seven days after he signed a bill designating the first Monday in September as a national holiday honoring workers, President Grover Cleveland sent the Army to quell a rebellion by striking Pullman workers.

Thirteen strikers were killed by the soldiers; union activist Eugene Debs went to jail because he refused to call a halt to the American Railway Workers' strike in Chicago.

And how about the date of that strike-breaking action? July 4, 1894. Independence Day, just two months before the first official national Labor Day was celebrated.

But Labor Day certainly wasn't an idea sprung from the head of Congress and shoved under the pen of President Cleveland. Matthew Maguire, a New Jersey machinist, and Peter J. McGuire, a New York carpenter who co-founded the precurser to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), decided something should be done to mark the strides already made toward creating a better workplace in America.

Working with the Central Labor Union of New York, Maguire and McGuire organized the country's first Labor Day parade -- 10,000 people took to the streets of New York City on September 5, 1882, and the holiday was born, at least unofficially.

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Union organizing was always a little rocky -- organizers, like the fellow who arrived in Matewan, West Virginia, to organizer miners, were likely to end up dead. And strikes -- like the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894 -- were often met with violence. And employers sometimes used tragic means to keep unions from gaining a toehold in their companies.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 cost 146 people, almost all women, their lives. The reason? Many of the sweatshop's doors were locked, standard procedure to keep pesky union organizers out and employees under strict control.


So the labor union movement in America, despite reaching a high of 21.7 million members in 1978, has never fully taken hold. In the United States, it's almost a love it or hate it thing when it comes to labor unions, as it has been since the movement's furtive beginnings in the mid-1800s.

But as another long weekend rolls around, it could be good to remember a few of the gains that might not have come around if labor unions hadn't been fighting so hard -- the 40- hour work week, unemployment insurance, pensions and workman's compensation, to name a few.

So fire up the grill, cop a great bargain, and take a dip in the pool on Monday. But remember who it was that made this summer-ending holiday possible -- the American worker.

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