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The History and Significance of Labor Day: Why We Celebrate

Discover the origins and significance of Labor Day. From its roots in the labor movement to its modern-day celebrations, learn about the history behind this important day.

Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

Labor Day has become a celebration for those countries that acknowledge it, and of course, there’s a reason for that, but it should also be a day for reflection. Nobody has ever turned their nose up at a long weekend, especially toward the end of summer, as the last chance to enjoy the warm weather; despite this, Labor Day's history is quite grim.

Although the day exists to commemorate the labor workers that contributed (and still contribute) to America’s power and wealth, these workers had to fight harder than they should have to be recognized for what they were and continue to be – the backbone of America’s economy. Blood was shed, jobs and income were lost, and the country was in complete distress.

Luckily, with each passing year, workers are given more freedoms and better benefits, but we should treat Labor Day as a reminder of all the hard work that was put in by our predecessors to give us these liberties.

In this article, we will discuss the following topics:

1. The Pullman Strike

2. The Haymarket Affair

3. Creating a Safe Work Environment For All

two labor workers in field

George Pullman and the Pullman Strike

Labor Day’s history stems back to the late 1800s when a man named George Pullman and the company town he founded nearby Chicago became the birthplace of the Pullman Strike. This strike went down in history as the initiator of Labor Day. What began this national ordeal is the depression of 1890, which was said to be on par with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It saw Pullman’s company, a railroad car manufacturer that specialized in the creation and operation of the sleeping car, deeply affected by the recession, forcing him to lay off hundreds of his employees. The remaining employees experienced detrimental pay cuts.

Despite the remaining employees living in Pullman’s town and paying rent to him, he didn’t lower it, knowing the financial setbacks he caused. Of course, this was not received well by the workers who had dedicated their lives to Pullman’s industry, and in response, they retaliated; 4,000 of his employees went on strike on May 11th, 1884, initiating the history of Labor Day.

The strike inspired other railway workers, and just like that, 150,000 individuals spanning over 27 states joined the cause, completely halting Pullman’s operations. This became a nationwide issue as mail cars were no longer running, leaving the US mailing system in shambles. It didn’t stop there – railcars were set ablaze, riots and pillaging ensued, and hoards of non-union workers contributed to the chaos.

The US President at the time, Grover Cleveland, with angry railroad executives in his ear, declared the strike a federal crime, and upwards of 12,000 troops were sent in to control the mobs of distressed workers. Violence ensued, lives were lost, and it wasn’t until approximately 30 individuals died that the strike came to a bloody end on August 3rd, 1884.

Just six days after these tragic events, on June 28th, 1884, President Cleveland and Congress were looking for a way to save their reputation, so a bill declaring Labor Day a national holiday was signed, and the day has been “celebrated” ever since.

The Haymarket Affair and the Origins of May Day

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the unfair treatment these workers had to endure. Roughly two years later, in 1886, Chicago once again saw its workers protesting on the streets, this time demanding shorter work weeks for the same pay rate. The strike was nearly 250,000 strong, bringing 13,000 businesses down with it.

The protest began peacefully, but when a bomb was thrown at police by an unknown culprit, things took a deadly turn. Seven officers and upwards of four protestors were killed by the dynamite, and several others close to the blast were left severely injured. The police reacted instantly, firing shots into the crowd, killing even more innocent people.

This day is known as ”The Haymarket Affair” – named after its location, it is known as one of the biggest influences in the history of labor. It also carries prominence for being the origin of the May 1st holiday, or May Day.

american flag in the wind on pole with lake view behind it

Resources to Focus on a Safe and Productive Workplace

With Labor Day here once again, let’s instill the important fact that work never trumps mental and physical health, and overworking shouldn’t be glamorized or encouraged – a balance between work and home life is vital for our well-being. You can be a mental health ally to your employees and peers by promoting mental wellness with Lumiform’s Mental Health Risk Assessment, a checklist that ensures a sound and healthy mind so that your staff can be productive and happy on the job.

Today is a good day to reflect on the history of Labor Day, be thankful for where we are, and never take our employees (or employment!) for granted. Respect and dignity go a long way, in and out of the workplace. We must remember the history, the blood, sweat, and tears that went into achieving our eight-hour workdays and minimum-wage standard.

Along with reflection, it’s also a call to action; employers can use the horrors of the history of Labor Day as a lesson and reminder to ensure workplace safety for all employees. Lumiform can aid in this with our Job Safety Analysis (JSA) Checklist and its corresponding Safety Inspection Templates to guarantee that all requirements are met for your whole team to complete their work safely, efficiently, and of high quality.

A practiced system for an organized, secure, and highly effective workplace setting is the Lean method, which Plan View describes as “optimizing the people, resources, effort, and energy of your organization toward creating value for the customer.” Lumiform also offers thousands of templates and checklists in this area so that you can adopt the Lean method for yourself – check out this 5S Checklist To Complete the Lean Method for an in-depth guide on how to do so yourself.

Don’t let this Labor Day go by without educating yourself and others on its history. When focusing on work and our team members, let’s make necessary adjustments to ensure employee satisfaction, health, and productivity. A major takeaway from the history of Labor Day is this: work is important – fairness, wellness, and happiness for you and your team are vital. Celebrate safely, and have fun this Labor Day.

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