Honoring all our work: a history of Labor Day
Labor Day will be celebrated Sept. 5 this year. It is a statutory holiday, signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, six days after Chicago’s Pullman Strike was quelled. The strike came after many unresolved disputes between George Pullman, the president of the Pullman Railway Company and Eugene Debs, the leader of the America Railway Union. Union members sought higher wages and better working conditions. Years of negotiations brought about few changes. Tensions were so high that the strike engendered riots. Many were killed during the rioting. Cleveland ordered federal troops into Chicago to end the strike.
There is some dispute over who first suggested setting aside a day to celebrate labor. In 1882 Matthew McGuire, a machinist, while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York proposed a Labor Day holiday. Others maintained that Peter McGuire of the American Federation of Labor (the AFL still exists today), proposed the holiday. What’s important is that labor is celebrated.
Each state’s legislature needed to enact the holiday for that state. Oregon was the first state to celebrate the holiday in 1887. By the time it became a national holiday, thirty states had legislated that Labor Day became law in their state.
I come from a labor family. My father and three of his brothers were electricians and belonged to the Electrical Workers Union 134 in Chicago. My grandfather was part of the labor movement in Chicago in the early 1920s into the 1930s. He organized Union 134 and was its president for many years. I remember when I was a child being part of many local south side Labor Day Parades. At first I thought it was really fun, but as I got older my father let my siblings and me stay home as it had become boring for us. I remember my father saying many times to his daughters, “Marry Irish and be sure he has his union card.”
Today, while staunch union members celebrate the day as their own, now it is a day to celebrate all labor. White collar or blue collar, it doesn’t matter. Most people work, and most for the same reasons — to maintain their households and give their children more opportunities. As Sisters of Providence, we work to help our students and clients find a better way of life.
All work is honorable. Let us celebrate all who labor. Let us celebrate our rich history of “laboring” next Monday.