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Not Just a Beach Day: The Origins of Labor Day

Although the U.S. Department of Labor simply recognizes Labor Day for its celebration of America's workers, it was actually born amid labor unrest

Locally it may mark the unofficial end of summer, but the national holiday of Labor Day has its roots in workers' rights.

More than 100 years after the first observance of Labor Day, it is still not clear who exactly proposed the holiday, but the measure was signed begrudgingly amid a period of labor unrest.

The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882. During that time, as longer work hours and pay cuts were imposed, laborers began protecting themselves by unionizing.

The holiday was recognized in 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City. The Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal consisting of a demonstration and a picnic, the Department of Labor said.

By 1884, 23 other states adopted the holiday. On June 28, 1984, Congress passed an act.

In 1893, the Pullman company, a railroad sleeping car company based out of Pullman, Ill., and founded by George Pullman, was caught in the nationwide economic depression. Hundreds of employees were laid off and those who remained endured wage cuts, PBS said. Paychecks plummeted even though rents in Pullman remained consistent.

Employees, supported by the American Railway Union, went on strike, demanding lower rents and higher pay, PBS said. Soon rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars ensued. Mobs of non-union workers joined in and the strike quickly became a national issue.

President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime, deploying 12,000 troops to put a stop to it, PBS reports. Violence erupted and two were killed as U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters.

The strike was declared over on Aug. 3, 1894. The leader of the American Railway Union went to jail and the union disbanded. The Pullman employees signed a pledge to never again unionize, PBS said.

Just six days after the strike ended, the Labor Day bill arrived on Cleveland’s desk. He signed the bill as a "reluctant election-year compromise" but was not re-elected.

The celebration of the holiday followed the form that was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday—a street parade followed by a festival, the Department of Labor reports. As more emphasis was placed on the economic and civic significance of Labor Day, celebrations included speeches by prominent men and women.

In 1909, the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution recognizing the Sunday preceding Labor Day as Labor Sunday, which was dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

On the Jersey Shore, Labor Day symbolizes the “unofficial” end of summer but in reality, the holiday is a yearly tribute to the workers throughout America who have contributed to the success of America.

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy,” the Department of Labor states. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

For more facts on Labor Day, read “Labor Day History: 11 Facts You Need to Know” or watch History.com’s “History of Labor Day” video.

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