Labor Day Legacy: Working Class Resilience

25 August 2023
by Ancestry® Team

For many people, Labor Day means a 3-day weekend and one final hurrah to say goodbye to summer. But the history of Labor Day isn’t to celebrate the perfect grilled hot dogs or a day on the lake. 

The real history of Labor Day is all about celebrating the American worker. You can trace its roots back to the late 1800s, when labor activists pushed for recognition of the workers who often suffered poor conditions on the job. They took the celebration into their own hands, organizing parades and picnics in recognition of the hard work of laborers. 

No matter how you celebrate Labor Day, it can be a reminder of the difficult conditions your ancestors dealt with to make a living. You might use the history of Labor Day weekend as inspiration to dig deeper into the work your relatives did decades or even centuries ago. 

Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

The history and meaning of Labor Day stretch back to a time before labor rights were federally regulated. Before labor unions and activists fought hard to change employment, American workers endured difficult working conditions. There were no state or federal employment regulations, which meant there were no restrictions on employers to ensure fair, reasonable employment accommodations. 

Your ancestors likely worked long hours in unsafe environments with very little protection. Even young children worked in dangerous conditions like crowded, poorly ventilated conditions. Pay was low, and many employees didn’t get weekends off. Many people worked 6- or 7-day weeks and 12-hour days. 

In the late 1800s, workers started banding together to advocate for better working conditions. Labor unions formed and pushed hard for improved working conditions. They organized strikes and negotiated with employers for better pay, hours, and working conditions. It was out of this labor movement that the history of Labor Day in America began.

Those early efforts also led to the workers’ rights we have today. Federal labor laws support safer work environments with minimum wages. Legislation also helped to reduce discrimination and create minimum hiring ages to reduce child labor. Your ancestors could have been a part of that movement or lived through the changes in working conditions. 

Who Founded Labor Day?

Many people contributed to the idea of Labor Day. But recognition for starting it all typically goes to Peter J. McGuire. The founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, McGuire brought the idea of celebrating American workers to New York’s Central Labor Union. The group liked the idea and started making plans for the celebration.

The September timing was somewhat random, with the idea that it would be about halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. That way, workers could have a little break between those two holidays during a stretch when there really weren’t any other days off. 

Labor Day, Greendale, Wisconsin, Source: Library of Congress
Labor Day, Greendale, Wisconsin, Source: Library of Congress

The First Labor Day

September 5, 1882, marked the first Labor Day—although it wasn’t an official holiday just yet. That first Labor Day celebration had some of the same elements that we still see today. Workers formed a parade, traveling on foot from City Hall in New York to Reservoir Park. There, they enjoyed a Labor Day picnic, speeches, and concerts while spending time with their families. 

The idea behind the first celebration was to start with a street parade to show how strong the labor organizations were. That would be followed by a recreational event where workers and their families could have fun. 

Several other cities and states followed suit, creating their own Labor Day celebrations in the years to come. In fact, 24 states officially designated Labor Day a holiday before it became a federal holiday. It wasn’t until June 28, 1894, that President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. Congress settled on the first Monday of September as Labor Day each year. 

How Did Labor Day Become a Federal Holiday?

Several states made Labor Day a holiday, but it took the federal government longer to make it official nationwide. While strikes and protests happened all over during that time, a boycott of Pullman railway cars was a turning point in making Labor Day a federal holiday.

In May of 1894, workers of the Pullman company went on strike to protest long hours, layoffs, and low pay. This led to a nationwide boycott of Pullman, which caused major disruptions to railroad traffic.

A federal injunction was issued to end the strike on July 2nd. The federal government also sent troops to Chicago to carry out the injunction in the following days. The situation turned into a riot, resulting in the destruction of property and as many as 30 deaths. 

This event helped encourage President Cleveland to sign a law that made Labor Day a federal holiday. It was his way of showing support for workers and trying to smooth things over after the deadly situation during the Pullman strike. 

These events would lead to significant changes for Black Americans in the coming decades, with Asa Philip Randolph leading the way. Beginning in 1925, Randolph would begin a decade-long fight for fair working conditions for his fellow Black laborers. In 1935, these efforts led to the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), who would be the nation’s first Black labor union.

Labor Day Parade, New York, 1981, Source: Library of Congress
Labor Day Parade, New York, 1981, Source: Library of Congress

Using the History of Labor Day to Trace Your Roots

So what does the history of Labor Day in the United States have to do with tracing your roots? If you’ve already started your family history search, you likely have the names of many family members. You might also have other basics, like where they lived.

Digging into their occupations and job histories through records on Ancestry® can help you better understand your ancestors. You might discover where they worked, what jobs they held, how they progressed in their careers, and how much they earned.

Knowing what professions they held and when they worked in those fields could help you learn more about their experiences. If a relative worked in a factory in the early or mid-1800s, you know they likely dealt with difficult conditions. It can be interesting to see if your relatives held jobs that transformed the country or had a major impact on life as we know it. 

You might even discover that some of your ancestors played a major role in the labor movement. Perhaps they were part of one of the first labor unions or worked as an activist to improve working conditions. Maybe they participated in early Labor Day celebrations, making the history of Labor Day in the United States more meaningful to you. Start a free trial with Ancestry to uncover your own family’s connection to Labor Day!

Learning about your ancestors’ careers could help you feel closer to them, especially if you work in a similar field. Or you could discover they had a dangerous or exciting job that you can’t imagine doing. You might find you come from a long line of medical professionals. Researching the careers of your family members can help you learn more about them and bring their stories to life. 

Ancestry offers a U.S. Labor Day Collections search option that can help you get started. It includes a wide range of data collections in the search. This could help you start finding information related to jobs from your family’s past. Once you know where your relatives may have been employed, you can research those companies to uncover what working there might have been like. 

Find Out More About Your Family

From their careers to where they lived, your ancestors’ details can unlock information about your own life and help you feel more connected to your past.

If the history of Labor Day in America inspires you to dig deeper into the work history of your ancestors, Ancestry can help. Learn more about your ancestors’ lives by starting a free Ancestry trial today and explore a variety of historical documents, including employment records.