A Brief History of Labor Day in America
Most Americans don’t know the history behind the end of summer holiday known as Labor Day. In May of 1882 a number of New York labor unions joined together to sponsor a “monster labor festival” featuring a parade, bands, speeches, picnics and fireworks. Twelve years later 23 states had enacted legislation to create their own official Labor Day holidays. In an era where American workers had few legislated or negotiated rights they relied on organized strikes to obtain safer working conditions and fair wages from their employers.
On June 17, 1893, an alliance of theatrical stagehands representing 11 cities (New York City, Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Louis, Denver, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Boston) officially formed the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (sic), to create an industry that would allow for fair wages and better working conditions.
Less than a year later Congress swiftly passed the Federal version of the Labor Day holiday in the midst of a contentious and deadly nationwide strike by rail workers that had been gripping the nation, and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation into law – just six days after the end of the strike.
The IATSE is nearly one year older than Labor Day.
Less than 20 years after the creation of Labor Day the United States Department of Labor was established to oversee issues related to national occupational safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits, reemployment services, and economic statistics – the agency citing its lineage from the era of that original “monster” festival.
The workplace rights Americans enjoy today are due to the unwavering diligence of organized labor and the commitment of lawmakers to reconcile the needs of employees with the goals of business.