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Why Do We Get Labor Day Off? You Can Thank Chicago Workers

The labor movement has a long and legendary history in Chicago.

Hundreds of faculty members at the University of Illinois Chicago and supporters picketed at the school's quad on Jan. 17, 2023 during the first day of the faculty union’s strike following nine months of contract negotiation.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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Portions of this story were originally published by DNAinfo Chicago in 2015.

CHICAGO — For many, Labor Day means the official end of summer, maybe celebrated with a nice weekend barbecue.

But Labor Day actually is a federal holiday meant to honor the vital labor movement in this country. And the commemorative day has roots firmly in Chicago, where labor activists fought and conducted strikes for decades for improved conditions and better pay for workers. The eight-hour workday is just one example of a development attained by the labor movement.

In fact, the city’s annual Labor Day parade is moving to Pullman this year in honor of that neighborhood’s many ties to the labor movement. The International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, the first Black labor union chartered by the American Federation of Labor, was formed by employees of the Chicago-based Pullman railroad company. And the 1894 Pullman strike helped lead to Labor Day being designated a national holiday.

Credit: Twitter/Unite Here Local 1
Employees at famed LGBTQ+ nightclub Berlin, 954 W. Belmont Ave., went on strike to demand higher wages and better access to health care.

Over a century later, the labor movement continues to fight for workers’ rights in Chicago and beyond: local chapters of organizations like the Screen Actors Guild, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (to name just a few); unions from educational institutions; and individual stores of national chains like Starbucks forming unions locally.

Here are five historical events from the labor movement in Chicago that contributed to this traditional holiday weekend:

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Haymarket Tragedy is viewed as a key moment in the history of labor and labor activists.

Haymarket Tragedy

Members of the eight-hour workday movement were meeting on May 4, 1886, when they were broken up by police. Then a bomb was thrown at police, which led to officers shooting at the crowd.

Seven officers and at least four members of the crowd were killed during the incident, which is now recognized as a key moment in the history of labor and labor activists. The bombing was blamed on anarchists not associated with either side.

In what is now considered a grave miscarriage of justice, four men were executed in connection to the incident, though none were convicted of throwing the bomb. Two other men sentenced to death had their sentences commuted and were later pardoned; another man who was sentenced to death committed suicide. An eighth man was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The eight-hour workday movement was greatly damaged by the event, though the trial and its aftermath have come under scrutiny since the incident.

The site of the Haymarket Tragedy, formerly known as the Haymarket Riot, is a Chicago Landmark and now marked by a monument at 175 N. Desplaines St. The international workers’ holiday of May Day on May 1 is meant to commemorate the Haymarket Tragedy and the labor movement overall.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Pullman Strike led to the designation of Labor Day as a national holiday.

Pullman Strike

Almost 4,000 Pullman Company workers went on strike in 1894 after their wages were cut but rent for company housing remained the same.

The strike led to railway issues throughout the country as workers refused to use Pullman cars on trains, damaged tracks and attacked laborers who had replaced them at work. Eventually, more than 100,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs.

Federal courts and troops were used to stop the strike, and union leader Eugene Debs faced federal charges (though most were later dropped and he was sentenced to six months).

Labor Day was designated a federal holiday shortly after the Pullman Strike ended in 1894 as a way to appease labor activists.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chicago’s stockyards, a key part of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Sinclair wrote the book to reveal the hardships faced by laborers, particularly immigrants, but readers largely focused on the book’s depiction of food care and packing.

‘The Jungle

Upton Sinclair sought to use his 1906 book, “The Jungle,” to expose the harsh conditions imposed on workers in Chicago’s stockyards and meatpacking district. The book focuses on the hardships faced by a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family. Rudkus struggles to provide for his wife and their relatives while they cope with life in Chicago’s tenements and slums.

Readers instead largely focused on Sinclair’s descriptions of the care and packing of food, leading to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

“I aimed for the public’s heart, and … hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair said of reaction to “The Jungle,” according to the Tribune.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Memorial Day Massacre left 10 labor activists dead.

Memorial Day Massacre

In 1937, steel workers went on strike, protesting the refusal of some steel manufacturers to sign a contract with unions. On Memorial Day — May 30 — they organized a march in East Side, but they were stopped by police.

The marchers and police argued, with the marchers wishing to continue, and police fired at the strikers. Dozens of people were injured and 10 were killed. Hundreds of laborers continued to protest in the days after the massacre.

There is now a sculpture to memorialize the incident and those who were killed, created by former Republic Steel employee Edward Blazak.

Credit: DNAinfo Chicago
The Congress Hotel strike is believed to be the longest-lasting hotel workers strike.

Congress Hotel Strike

Chicago is home to the Congress Hotel Strike, which is believed to be the longest-lasting hotel workers strike.

The nearly decade-long strike started after the hotel reduced workers’ wages, froze its contributions to their health insurance and said it would subcontract work to minimum-wage workers, according to the hotel workers union.

The strike began June 2003 and ended May 2013. It “just cleared up overnight,” leaving the attorney who represented the hotel surprised, according to a DNAinfo Chicago story.

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