Political Perspectives on the History of Labor Day

labor-dayDespite its political beginnings, Labor Day is a commemoration of an improvement in American working conditions.

By Zachariah B. Parry, attorney at Pickard Parry Pfau.

Since 1894, the first Monday in September has been set apart as a federal holiday commemorating American workers. Labor Day, which is an ironically named work-free day, was born from political controversy in an effort by President Grover Cleveland to mollify his constituency in the midst of a particularly violent labor strike.

The Pullman Company, a Illinois-based manufacturer of railroad cars, employed and housed thousands of workers in a small town south of Chicago. The owner of the Pullman Company, an industrialist named George Pullman, laid off many of his workers and reduced wages of others. These workers, who had not unionized, were incensed at the reduction, particularly because Pullman, who also controlled the housing, did not lower the rents or other costs he controlled in the town. He also refused to arbitrate the matter.

Representatives of the American Railway Union (ARU) went to Pullman and recruited many of the factory workers. With the strength of numbers, on May 11, 1894, almost 4,000 of the workers joined in a strike and called for a massive boycott of Pullman train cars. However, the strike and boycott were not yielding results quickly enough, so many of the strikers began to physically interfere with train cars in an effort to prevent them from reaching their destination. About a quarter of a million workers in 27 states participated in the boycott in some form or another. As a result of the strike and boycott, massive sabotage resulted in $80 million in damages, and thirty people lost their lives in riots.

In the middle of the affair, in an effort to garner public support, the United States Congress, with the aid of President Cleveland, quickly created a federal law to commemorate a workingman’s holiday. The law, 28 Stat. 96 (1894), read as follows:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now made by law public holidays.

At about the same time, the federal government stepped into the fray and obtained an injunction against the ARU and its leaders. The strikers disregarded the court order, and in response, Grover Cleveland, with strong public support, sent 12,000 army troops to form a barrier between the strikers and the train cars. After the military’s involvement, violence ensued, but eventually the strike ended. The ARU was dissolved, and its founder, Eugene Debs, despite being defended by Clarence Darrow—one of the greatest criminal defense attorneys in American history—was convicted and imprisoned for six months for violating the court’s injunction.

Thus, Labor Day was created in part as a political ploy by the President of the United States to rally support while putting an end to a violent strike.

The law as it stands today, 5 U.S.C. § 6103, reads as follows:

The following are legal public holidays:
New Year’s Day, January 1.
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the third Monday in January.
Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February.
Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.
Independence Day, July 4.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September.
Columbus Day, the second Monday in October.
Veterans Day, November 11.
Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November.
Christmas Day, December 25.

Although Labor Day was not recognized as a federal holiday until President Cleveland needed to increase his political clout in 1894, its origins begin years earlier.

In New York on September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was celebrated, though it was not an official state holiday anywhere until Oregon passed it into law in 1887. By the time the federal government passed its law in 1894, a total of 31 states’ legislatures had already recognized Labor Day as a holiday.

Nevada, too has a statute recognizing Labor Day, NRS 236.015, which like the federal rule, establishes the first Monday in September as a Labor Day, on which day “all state, county and city offices, courts, public schools and the Nevada System of Higher Education must close.” This is not only inline with the rest of our nation, but is also consistent with Nevada’s strong public policy favoring the fair treatment and compensation of laborers. (See, e.g., NRS 608.150.)

Despite its political beginnings, Labor Day has been celebrated nationwide in the last 120 years as the last day in a three-day weekend as a way to honor the American worker and the sacrifices that our forebears have endured to give us the eight-hour workday, minimum wages, and overall better working conditions.

Zachariah B. ParryZachariah B. Parry is a founding partner of the civil litigation law firm, Pickard Parry Pfau. He regularly litigates against parties with deep pockets like labor unions, racketeering enterprises and insurance companies. He has experienced success on both sides of the table, including multiple multi-million dollar judgments on behalf of plaintiffs in fraud cases and zero-dollar defense verdicts for his clients who were unjustly sued. In addition to litigating, Zach also teaches torts, contracts and Nevada practice and procedure at UNLV’s paralegal program.

Zach can be reached at zach@pickardparry.com, 702-910-4300, or through his firm’s website at www.pickardparry.com.

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