It wasn’t always about the grilling and Slip’N Slide.

In fact, that last glorious slice of summertime that Labor Day has come to represent masks the overlooked  turbulent history that led to its establishment in the first place.

Nineteenth Century America was a time of rapid industrialization. Many of the nation’s urban centers were bursting at the seams, attracting a flood of poor immigrants desperate for work, but vulnerable to exploitation. Growing labor unrest led to a string of major strikes and protests, with workers demanding higher pay, safer working conditions and the right to unionize. The demonstrations often sparked violent clashes with police and private company security forces.

The unrest, though, proved fruitful. It ultimately led to major improvements for millions of workers, ushering in an era of new labor regulations that included the establishment of an 8-hour workday and laws prohibiting child labor. The reforms also gave rise to a prolonged period of burgeoning union membership, increased wages and a notable rise in the ranks of America’s middle class.

This trend continued until the 1970s, when good  blue collar jobs, the influence of unions and the size of the middle class all began to sharply decline, as more U.S. companies moved their manufacturing to cheaper factories overseas.

Labor Day became an official national holiday in 1894 in the aftermath of the notorious Pullman Strike, which was among the largest in U.S. history.

Soon after ordering federal authorities to quell the unrest (resulting in a number of strikers killed), President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day an official holiday as a conciliatory nod to the nation’s working class. But eager to distinguish the holiday from the more radical, socialist roots of May Day — an internationally recognized workers day — Cleveland pushed for an apolitical September date.

These two short videos (above and below) provide a good, brief overview of those origins.

Additionally, PBS and Scientific American feature informative articles on Labor Day’s roots.

Labor Day’s Violent Roots: The Hard-Won Fight for Your Long Weekend 1 September,2017Matthew Green

  • Jill Havrilla

    “hot dogs and cornhole” ?? you have been going to a different kind of picnic than I have!

  • melvinjones

    Hot Dogs and “Cornhole” ?? Please expand on this iteration.

    • ginos_way

      Cornhole: A game invented by rural folks using a bag of uncooked corn or beans, tossed at a board in which holes are cut. Thrown from a distance as a game of skill. An innocent farm kids’ game that really should be renamed.

    • George Doyle II

      Cornhole is for those hillbillies that are too drunk to play horseshoes. Exactly same game but one has a post and is harder the other has a hole and is easier.

  • George Doyle II

    Funny how most of the people that get the day off with pay are non union white collar people. But those non union blue collar people don’t get paid to not be at work. The people that need that paid day off the most don’t get it.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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