Union Plus

Labor Day History

Celebrating the workers who power America

What is Labor Day, anyway?

Labor Day may be the unofficial end of summer, but since 1894 it's also when we pause to celebrate America's unions and union workers. Not sure why? Watch and learn!

Way back when

Before workers organized and formed unions, there were no regulations surrounding employment, and employers often took advantage of this freedom. This meant that employees were very often required to work extraordinarily long hours, and with no job protection from discrimination, or even violence. Worse still, young children were often put to work in factories, mines, railroads, warehouses, and other dangerous work environments.  

How it began

Working people began organizing and bargaining collectively to advocate for better working conditions and wages and celebrated the first Labor Day in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Following the deaths of 13 workers during the Pullman Strike in June of 1894, President Grover Cleveland made reconciliation with the labor movement a top priority of his administration, making Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894. 

During the major economic depression of the early 1890s, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages in its factories. Discontented workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott of all Pullman cars on all railroads. ARU members across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains. When these switchmen were disciplined, the entire ARU struck the railroads on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars.

How unions impact our lives today

In the years since, labor unions have served as a united voice for workers of all professions by bargaining collectively with employers to advocate for better wages, working conditions and to establish parameters of work life that have become commonplace and law, such as the eight-hour-workday, five-day work week, protection for children in the workplace and the federal minimum wage.

What we're fighting for today — Passing the PRO Act to keep all workers safe

What is the PRO Act?
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act restores the rights of workers to form a union and bargain together for changes in the workplace.

13 Ways the PRO Act Helps Workers
Learn how the PRO Act helps working people in so many ways and why it’s the most important worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression.

Urge Your Senators to Pass the PRO Act
The unions of the AFL-CIO are fighting to protect workers from the coronavirus pandemic, build stronger job safety, and enforce health protections.