September 4, 2023

Marginalized workers of the 19th century are to thank for Labor Day


The first Monday of September each year is celebrated as Labor Day, a quintessential American holiday that marks the end of summer and the beginning of the fall season. While it is often associated with barbecues, parades and the last chance to wear white, Labor Day has a more significant history than most realize, especially in the logistics industry.

This holiday is a day dedicated to honoring contributions and achievements of American workers who are the backbone of this country. But what is the origin of Labor Day and how did it evolve into the barbecue celebration it is today?

To appreciate the significance of Labor Day, we first have to go back to the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution.

In 1882, Peter J. McGuire, who was a union organizer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, came up with the idea to celebrate the American worker, according to Britannica. He brought the idea to the Central Labor Union of New York after the Industrial Revolution brought about so many technological advancements in the United States that economic growth flourished.

For many workers, the Industrial Revolution meant harsher working conditions, longer hours and low wages. Unions began to form across the country, like the Brotherhood of Carpenters, which advocated for better conditions, hours and pay. The movement gained momentum with many protests occurring and even strikes.

The Central Labor Union of New York accepted the idea and, on Sept. 5, that year about 10,000 workers sponsored by the Knights of Labor marched in a parade across New York. But what was the significance of Sept. 5?

Actually, there was no significance of the date itself. It was specifically chosen because it fell halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving for a nice holiday break in between.

While many believe McGuire to be the father of the Labor Day idea, some historical reports also designate machinist Matthew Maguire as the founder, according to the Department of Labor. Maguire was the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, and is also said to have proposed the idea in 1882. McGuire and Maguire both were at the festivities in its inaugural year.

According to Britannica, the Knights of Labor made a resolution that Labor Day would occur every year on the first Monday of September, prompting many other communities to do the same. The day was instilled as an official holiday when Oregan became the first state to designate it as such in 1887. After that New York, Colorado and Massachusetts did the same.

But during this time, worker tensions still remained.

In May of 1894, a strike broke out against the Pullman Palace Car Company after the company cut wages 25% that were already considered low, leaving much of its workforce starving and struggling to survive, according to Britannica. George Pullman refused to meet with the workers as they tried to air their grievances and they soon voted to strike. The conflict escalated on June 22, when the American Railway Union (ARU) issued a boycott against Pullman to support those on strike.

One by one, trains were brought to a halt and American life was disrupted. On June 27 that year, 5,000 workers left their jobs and 15 railroads were stalled; 40,000 walked off the job by the next day.

ARU President Eugen V. Debs escalated things when he spoke to a large crowd in Blue Island, Illinois. While he feared things would result in violence, he tried to keep things peaceful. However, when he finished speaking, the crowd’s anger grew and some started to set fire to nearby buildings and a locomotive.

The train was attached to a United States mail train, which caught the attention of President Grover Cleveland. In response, he signed Labor Day into law on June 28, 1894, according to the Department of Labor.

In its beginning years, Labor Day was often a day for labor union demonstrations and parades before it evolved into a relaxed holiday where American families and friends gather for picnics, fireworks and outdoor activities. Nevertheless, its core purpose remains the same: to honor the American and acknowledge the social and economic achievements of the labor movement.

Today, the holiday is an important reminder of the progress made in workers’ rights and labor conditions. It also highlights the ongoing challenges and inequalities that workers face in contemporary society, as documented by the continuous union conflicts and strikes that occurred this past year. This year, let us acknowledge the boots-on-the-ground worker who makes our everyday American life possible.

Happy Labor Day!


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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