Labor Day! Most of us consider the upcoming three-day weekend as the perfect excuse to get out of town or relax in the hammock. Kids know it as their last bit of freedom before school starts (well, the lucky kids that haven’t gone back to school yet). And, according to the fashion-conscious, it’s the last chance to wear white.
But, like so many holidays, the origins of Labor Day are rooted in adversity, not pleasure and relaxation. While the day now stands for the official end of the summer, it was once a concession given to the thousands of laborers who struggled for fair pay, benefits, and improved living conditions in our country.
It all started when John P. Altgeld, the former Governor of Illinois, received a letter from the citizens of Pullman, a business-owned community for employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Due to the poor economy, the demand for Pullman’s products (they made railway cars), dropped significantly. In response, Company owner George Pullman cut wages for his employees, including the ones living in the town bearing his name. Despite the cut, the workday was increased (employees worked an average of 16 hours a day) and the price of rent and food in town remained extremely high- too high, in fact, for the workers to afford.
Most of the workers protested and eventually went on strike, but their employee refused to budge. In desperation, the citizens of Pullman sent Governor Altgeld this letter:
To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:
We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1,600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful.
We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as the last resource. Trusting that God will influence you on our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain,
Yours in distress,
The Starving Citizens of Pullman
Governor Altgeld wasted little time in intervening. Soon he was visiting Pullman himself, where he reported that the, “distress [is] as great as it was represented. Men who worked for your company for more than ten years had to apply to the relief society in two weeks after the work stopped. The men are hungry and the women and children are actually suffering .” In fact, he discovered that many of the citizens were living on little more than two pounds of oatmeal, and two pounds of cornmeal, donated by a relief committee that had “exhausted its resources.”
Eventually, the situation got so tense that President Grover Cleveland sent Federal troops into Illinois to end the strike, a decision that greatly angered Governor Altgeld. Soon the strike was over. A few years later, the Illinois Supreme Court declared that the Pullman Company had to sell the town, as running a community was not part of their charter. Soon it was annexed into the city of Chicago. But around the country, other labor organizations fumed. Fearing further strikes, President Cleveland tried to look for a way to come to peace with the labor movement. He decided to turn what was primarily a state holiday into a federal one, by declaring a national Labor Day to celebrate the economic contributions of workers around the country.
For Decades, Labor Day stayed true to its origins and mainly revolved around parades designed to celebrate workers. But the world we live in is much different than in 1894. As the unrest in the labor movement began to end, and strikes became mostly a thing of the past, the day eventually turned into one of relaxation: A day for picnics, barbecues and football. It’s only natural for holidays to change over time, as the generations who celebrate them have also changed. Labor Day has become a holiday for family, and for Americans, and that’s a wonderful thing. But as you celebrate this year, take a moment to reflect on how we got here. Spare a thought for the history of Labor Day. The convenience of the present is always owed to the sweat and tears of the past.
Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone!
And remember, our country is built on the spirit of hard work, on the spirit of constantly aiming to improve and also of progress.