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Labor movement has a long (and painful) history


Labor Day rivals Memorial Day in terms of barbecues and vacations. And yet while the meaning of Memorial Day remains at the forefront of our mind, many of us have forgotten what Labor Day is meant to represent, the people that it honors and the fight they fought.

The roots of Labor Day begin during the industrial revolution. Factories were springing up across the nation and with them a new class of workers emerged. For the first few generations of blue-collar workers the idea of having “rights” in the workplace was nonexistent. Twelve- to 15-hour workdays were common, and the weekend had never been heard of. Children as young as 5 were found in factories, and people throughout the cities of the United States were living in factory-owned tenement-style housing.

It was into this boiling mix of change that the Labor Movement was born. Unions sprang up, and by the late 1870s the battle between industry and labor rights was ongoing. Strikers across the nation began demanding standardized work weeks, a minimum age for employment and rights in the workplace.

The first Labor Day celebration occurred on Sept. 5, 1882, when a parade of 10,000 people marched in New York. Oregon became the first state in the nation to declare Labor Day an official state holiday. By the mid-1890s more than 30 states recognized Labor Day as an official holiday.

Labor Day finally became a national holiday celebrated across the United States in 1894 at the end of the Pullman Strike. The Pullman Strike was a railroad strike that began after the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages in 1893. The majority of Pullman’s employees were non-unionized and lived in company-owned communities. When they discovered that their rents were not dropping with their paychecks, the workers formed a delegation and asked George Pullman, the owner, to negotiate with them on wage changes. He refused.

Pullman workers joined the American Railway Union in response. ARU workers across the nation began refusing to run trains that contained Pullman cars. Their plan? To force the railroad companies to pressure Pullman to negotiations with his workers. By the end of June 1894 workers from 29 different rail lines had walked off the job.

Coordinating through the General Managers’ Association, railroads began hiring strikebreakers. On June 29, 1894, mini-riots broke out in Blue Island, Ill., after a peaceful rally. With an injunction from a federal court in hand, barring union leaders from supporting the strike and ordering workers back to work, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney confronted the ARU and was ignored.

Within days, thousands of U.S. marshals and 12,000 United States Army troops were called in to end the strike in towns across the United States. In the clashes that followed, 30 union workers were killed and another 57 injured. Olney and Cleveland ended their strike, but public opinion—once heartily against the strikers — had begun to turn. That fall, in an effort to appease union members and the people who supported them, Congress rushed the approval of legislation naming the first Monday in September to be a national holiday — Labor Day — as a celebration of the American Labor Movement and “a salute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of their country.”

Sources include the U.S. Dept. of Labor website, Slate Magazine and the Huffington Post.

Callie Vandewiele is a resident of Southeast Portland.