Ask people what comes to mind with the mention of “Labor Day,” and you will most likely hear two responses: “Back to school” and “Can’t wear white.”

This is a far cry from the holiday founders’ intent and might make one wonder whether Labor Day has lost its relevance. A look back at Labor Day’s history and a look forward at 21st century dynamics might help judge whether Labor Day will stand the test of time.

Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 when Peter McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, proposed to the New York Central Labor Union that workers be honored in New York with their own holiday. It took 12 years for President Grover Cleveland to make it a national holiday.

What happened in those 12 years is riveting. America was still experiencing the Industrial Revolution, whose shame included 12-hour workdays, child labor and abysmal working conditions.

Then in 1894, the Pullman Strike occurred and changed America’s landscape. At the heart of the strike was a 25% wage reduction for workers belonging to the American Railway Union. The depression of 1893 had caused CEO George Pullman to reduce wages. However, he did not lower rents within the “company town” he built for his workers. Workers complained that they could barely feed their families on the original wage.

When leaders of the ARU requested a meeting with Pullman to air grievances, Pullman refused and fired the leaders. This caused thousands of workers to walk off the job.

Massive disruption to rail traffic resulted. The upheaval highlighted the emerging struggle between capital and labor. With both sides dug in, politicians worried about the consequences for the public and turned to the courts for help.

A court injunction was granted, requiring an end to the strike. President Cleveland sent in troops to enforce the ruling. Riots ensued, civilians were killed, and a railroad yard was burned.

In the context of this dissension, President Cleveland called for Labor Day as a national holiday to celebrate workers. He hoped it would diffuse tension and keep labor squarely behind him.

Thus began our commemoration of Labor Day for the last 125 years, usually with parades, barbeques and occasional fireworks. I grew up with the day marking the end of summer and a return to school.

Labor Day is experienced differently today, for reasons that go beyond the pandemic. Most towns are not hosting parades, sponsoring fireworks or encouraging large gatherings.

What else has happened to change our attitude about Labor Day? Consider the following:

— The passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In 1970, an agency was established to monitor workplace safety. With mandated standards, random inspections and hefty penalties for noncompliance, the workplace is vastly improved — addressing a major raison d’etre for unions.

— Participation in labor unions today. There has been a steep decline in union participation from more than 20% in 1983 to just over 10% in 2019. Within the private sector, union participation has dwindled to a mere 6%, in part due to the decline in U.S. manufacturing, a traditional stronghold of unions. Fewer union employees probably translate to less enthusiasm for the day.

— Millennials are not typically big supporters of unions. The union’s value to previous generations was that their interests were protected and defended by union leadership. Members gladly ceded to authority and followed marching orders because benefits ensued — more generous pensions, improved working conditions and the like.

Today’s millennials view the world differently. They’ve grown up in a gig economy, are skeptical of those in power and appreciate their independence. The “union drum” is not their beat. They want to make a difference but in their own and independent way.

The decline of Labor Day is not cast in stone, but its value proposition needs an update. Can we use Labor Day to engage on timeless topics that challenge us — dispute resolution, workforce diversity and health care, for example — seen through a modern lens?

How about those 12-hour shifts that unions were able to cut back to only eight hours? Our connected devices keep us working all the time. As we sit chained to our laptops, can we reclaim a piece of our lives by insisting, “You can only have so much of me.”

If you find yourself sitting around the picnic table Labor Day weekend, consider starting a conversation about the Pullman Strike, and see if your crew can find any modern-day parallels. Whatever the conclusion, the process might build an appreciation for a holiday that suddenly doesn’t seem so remote.

Jill Ebstein is the editor of the “At My Pace” series of books and the founder of Sized Right Marketing, a Newton, Massachusetts consulting firm.

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

(11) comments


The article did not address the bit about not wearing white. Was that connected with the Pullman strike or something else?


??it’s fashionably inappropriate to wear all white clothing after Labor Day. That goes way, way back if you are unaware. Kind of a joke by the author.


The "you can't wear white after Labor Day," rule was created to separate the old money elitists from the new money group. ... For those who had money and could leave the city during warmer months, white was considered vacation attire.[ninja]


The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. It hasn’t been raised since 2009. Maternity leave is still not guaranteed with pay.


Having been very much involved with a union I have seen the benefits and I have seen those that will and will not support a union. I have seen strike breakers come back to the union seeking help, I have seen union members promoted to management and totally change and some that still understood and we're sympathetic.

What is really important is the fact unions caused the 40 hour work week, overtime pay at a premium and good benefits including medical and pensions. In the long run those who do not support unions are cutting their own throats.

Greg F

Labor Day should have more meaning except that it was purposefully moved so it didn’t line up with other nations date. Divide and conquer...


Is there anything that you like or have a positive outlook on?



While Democrats would mostly celebrate that the Pullman strike helped give workers rights, Republicans would probably focus on calling it domestic terrorism. Potato pototo.


There were worse strikes than the Pullman strike.


Like some of the coal mine strikes.



Or the Ford Motor Company. The Ford Hunger March, sometimes called the Ford Massacre, was a demonstration on March 7, 1932 in the United States by unemployed auto workers in Detroit, Michigan, which took place during the height of the Great Depression. The march started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan, in a confrontation in which four workers were shot to death by the Dearborn Police Department and security guards employed by the Ford Motor Company. More than 60 workers were injured, many by gunshot wounds. Three months later, a fifth worker died of his injuries.

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