Don't Know Much

Pop Quiz: Which President signed Labor Day into law?

(Repost of a 2011 videoblog, directed, edited and produced by Colin Davis)

Answer: Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894

The end of summer, a three-day weekend, burgers on the grill, and a back-to-school shopping spree, right? And the most important question, “Can I still wear white?”

But very few people associate Labor Day with a turbulent time in American History. That’s what Labor Day is really about. The holiday was born during the violent union-busting days of the late 19th century, when sweat shop conditions killed children, when there was no minimum wage and when going on vacation meant you were out of work.

If you like holidays, benefits and a five-day, 40-hour work week, you need to know about Labor Day.

When Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894, it was a bone tossed to the labor movement. And it was deliberately placed in September to ensure that it would not recall the memory of the deadly rioting at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886. Europe’s workers, and later the Communist Party, adopted May Day as a worker’s holiday to commemorate the deadly Haymarket Sqaure Riot which came about during a strike against thee McCormack Reaper Company.

Although Labor Day did become federal law in 1894, most of labor’s successes –the minimum wage, overtime, the end of child labor – did not come about until the Depression-era reforms of the New Deal.

Labor Day was created to celebrate the “strength and spirit of the American worker.” But this holiday should remind us that — like so many things we take for granted — those victories for working people came at great cost, in blood, sweat and tears.

For more on the history of Haymarket Square, here is a link to the Chicago Historical Society’s web project.

“American Experience,” the PBS documentary series, produced a Homestead Strike piece as part of its film about Andrew Carnegie.

You can read more about the history of the trade union movement in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition and Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)
Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

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