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Honoring all our work: a history of Labor Day


American Railway Union workers on strike confront Illinois National Guard troops during the Chicago Pullman Strike. Grover Cleveland signed into law Labor Day as a national holiday six days after the the dispute ended.

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.

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Sister Mary Tomlinson

Sister Mary Tomlinson

Sister Mary Tomlinson has been a Sister of Providence for 30 years. She is currently retired and ministers doing freelance grant writing work. Sister Mary works from a home base in the Chicago area where she lives near her son and his family, including her four granddaughters.

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  1. Avatar Donna Butler on September 2, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, Mary for this informative piece on the history of this holiday and your own family history.
    I pray this Labor Day to become more aware and grateful for the many people whose contributions I tend to take for granted.

    • Avatar S. Denise Wilkinson on September 2, 2016 at 9:02 am

      Mary, I learned much from you and your blog. I had a vague notion about the Pullman Riots being part the day’s history but that was it. And I can so see and your dad giving his marriage counseling. Fenise

  2. Avatar Marilyn Kofler, SP on September 2, 2016 at 10:22 am


    Your love for and expertise in American history shine forth in your informative blog. Your Irish, Chicago, and family connections and narrative highlight the struggles of the working-class people in the past. Their struggles remind us of how far our nation has come and how far we have still have to go. As you say, “what matters is that labor is celebrated”….the work of human hands. (My Austrian father always had his union card in his wallet.) Enjoy the parades this weekend! Marilyn

  3. Avatar Carol Nolan on September 3, 2016 at 1:13 am

    Thanks, Mary! You really have a bent for history. It is sad that today we still celebrate Labor Day, but labor and unions are less and less honored.
    (My great grandfather was head of the tailors’ union and of the temperance union union in Galesburg.)

  4. Avatar Paula Modaff, S.P. on September 5, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Good job, Mary. Thank you for this background about which I had no idea.

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