Labor Day: The Worker’s Holiday Was Bought With Blood

If you live in the US you look forward to the first Monday in September.  It’s Labor Day.  There are parades and if you work for a company, any company, you get the day off, paid.

The majority of us either weren’t taught or have forgotten the history of Labor Day.  It’s become mostly the symbol of summer ending as public pools and swim areas are open Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Here’s the highlights for Americans, since many countries celebrate their own form of Labor Day on different days depending on the country.  In 1882, the year Jack the Ripper was terrorizing London, 10,000 workers marched to city Hall in New York City to protest working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in work environments that were extremely hazardous.  Mortality rates for workers in manufacturing were high and if something happened and you died in a manufacturing accident, it was your fault.

Some jobs like cleaning out equipment at fabric manufacturers, could only employ children, because everyone else was too big to fit into the areas that needed to be cleaned, and did so, occasionally children as young as 5 were put into the machines to keep them cleaned and working.  These child workers made next to nothing and the mortality rate was even higher for the child workers than the adults.

The march in New York city in 1882 was the first real Labor Day parade in the US, even though it wasn’t yet a holiday.  These conditions had given rise to labor unions and in 1893 (or 1894), the rail car union in Chicago went on strike.  This was a huge deal.  Work in the rail car factories of Chicago ground to a halt because management and ownership decided to cut wages in the rail car factory there.

It should be noted the owners of industries in the US hated the labor unions.  And they were very wealthy.  When the rail car workers in Chicago went on strike, the Federal Government responded at the request of the owner.  They sent the army in to break up the strike.  The army is more like a sledge hammer than a peace keeping force.  And the army had orders to kill any labor union representatives at the strike.  Except it wasn’t like the labor union reps were wearing giant signs announcing they were organizers within the labor union or bright red coats.  The army ended up killing lots of workers.  It was a bloody clash.  When it ended, the corpses of laborers, labor union reps, and soldiers cluttered the area around the factory where the strike had taken place.

The event actually strengthened the power of the labor union movement.  More and more workers saw that if they organized, they could garner change within their respective industries.  As long as they were also willing to shed blood and lose some of their own.  Since death was always a threat working in factories, it didn’t seem like a big deal to risk life and limb to make things better in the factory.  And the US Government in 1894 made Labor Day an official federal holiday.

As a result, Labor Day isn’t just a holiday to celebrate the worker.  It’s a remembrance of all those that died trying to improve working conditions for laborers in the US.  And it was bought and paid for by the lives of thousands of American workers who stood up to industry to demand that workers be put before profits in every industry and every company.  From 1894 to the 1960s there would be dozens of clashes between labor unions, city police departments, and the US Government.

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