Labor Day’s Here, but Where Did It Come From?

Most employers will be giving their employees a paid holiday on Sept. 5 as part of a great American tradition. It’s the three-day Labor Day weekend, a last hurrah as summer winds down.

Everyone loves Labor Day. Its main purpose is honoring the glory of backyard barbecues and shopping for sales on furniture and mattresses, right? Um, not really.

Labor Day is actually a national holiday dedicated to the labor movement and the contributions of workers. The labor movement, by the way, is another term for organized labor, as in unions.

There was a time in this country when we didn’t have laws on the books granting rights and protections in areas such as wages and hours, safety and health or discrimination. In some cases, people were literally worked to death.

The formation of labor unions gave workers an avenue for addressing the situation. With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (a.k.a. the Wagner Act) in 1935, the U.S. adopted a formalized system giving employees the right to vote for unionization and have their elected representatives negotiate with management over things like wages, hours and working conditions.

The origins of Labor Day go back further than that, however, to the rough and tumble times when clashes between unions and employers were taking place in the streets as well as at the bargaining table.

Imagine a situation where going out on strike could get you killed. "Not in my great country," you’re thinking. How crazy would it be if people lost their lives because they had problems with the way their bosses were running things?

Maybe that’s not the case anymore, but there’s a direct connection between Labor Day and the deadly Pullman Strike, which crippled the nation’s railway system during the summer of 1894. The federal government relied on military intervention to end that strike, and violent confrontations killed 30 workers.

Prior to that time, some states had adopted their own Labor Day holidays, but Congress hadn’t shown much interest in following suit. Then the events of the Pullman Strike unfolded in deadly fashion, and legislation suddenly whizzed through Congress.

President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill less than a week after the strike ended. And that’s how federal recognition of a national holiday to honor unions and workers came about.

Here’s hoping that all of our celebrations over the three-day weekend bear no resemblance whatsoever to the events that gave rise to the Labor Day holiday!

Bloomberg BNA’s HR Decision Support Network is your one-stop resource for reliable guidance and analysis in every area of employment-law compliance and HR management. Start your free trial today!