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Updated: Sep 7, 2021

By: Logan Byrne, Esq.

Currently, most Americans view Labor Day as a holiday that marks the end of the summer. Now, taken for granted, Labor Day was not always a day without labor. In fact, like many modern work-life improvements, labor unions were the catalyst behind the acknowledgment of Labor Day as a national holiday.

During the 1880s, at their places of employment, workers faced long workdays, strenuous physical labor, and dangerous working conditions. In response to these inequities, labor unions used strikes to exert their influence over employers. In May 1886, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago brought the tensions between employers and employees to a head.[1]

More specifically, on May 1, 1886, a group of labor unions joined together to launch a general strike to campaign for eight-hour workdays. The strike lasted for several days and was peaceful until May 4th. Seeing an opportunity to cause harm, a group of militant anarchist groups decided to turn the peaceful union strike into a violent riot. As police advanced on a crowd of workers, an anarchist threw a bomb at the police. The bomb detonated killing and wounding police officers. In response, the police shot into the crowed killing and wounding innocent strikers. As a result, sixty police officers were wounded and seven died. Likewise, similar numbers of citizens were wounded and killed.[2]

Ultimately, eight anarchists were convicted of murder, four were executed, and one committed suicide by detonating a stick of dynamite, which he had smuggled into his prison cell.[3] Although five of the eight convicted individuals died as a result of their sentences, legal scholars consider their trial a “mockery of justice.” In fact, in 1983, Illinois Governor John Altgeld issued a full report on the legal proceedings and pardoned the defendants.[4]

After the Haymarket Riot, people around the world began celebrating May 1 as International Workers Day, the precursor of Labor Day.[5] Although some cities began holding Labor Day celebrations, the federal government was not fond of the new holiday and had no interest in officially sanctioning it.

In 1893, George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman Sleeping Car, cut wages and laid off hundreds of workers. As a result, in May 1894, his employees walked out of work and the American Railway Union declared a boycott against Pullman. Some demonstrators destroyed property, which prompted Attorney General Richard Olney to successfully seek an injunction against the strikers. Moreover, President Grover Cleveland sent the military to enforce Olney’s injunction. The government’s dramatic escalation and military presence caused the strike to turn deadly. During the escalation, workers destroyed railway cars, while the National Guard shot and killed approximately thirty people.[6]

In June 1894, in response to the various strikes and public outcry, Congress passed legislation designating the first Monday of September a national holiday – Labor Day.[7] Likewise, on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation into law and Labor Day officially became a national holiday.[8]

The United States has a long tumultuous history of unfair treatment of workers. Labor unions have long fought to secure reasonable workdays, safe working conditions, and fair pay. So, next Labor Day, take a moment to remember all the brave workers who fought and died for modern labor standards and thank the labor unions that are still fighting every day to improve the lives of all workers.

[1] History, How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday, [2] Stephan Landsman, When Justice Fails, 84 Mich. L. Rev. 824 (1986), [3] History, How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday, [4] Stephan Landsman, When Justice Fails, 84 Mich. L. Rev. 824 (1986),; Public Broadcasting Service, The Anarchists and the Haymarket Square Incident, [5] History, How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday, [6] History, How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday, [7] Id. [8] History, Labor Day 2021,

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