On June 28, 1894, the 53rd Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday. Here’s how Rep. Lawrence McGann (D-IL), who sat on the Committee on Labor, argued for the holiday:
“The use of national holidays is to emphasize some great event or principle in the minds of the people by giving them a day of rest and recreation, a day of enjoyment, in commemoration of it. By making one day in each year a public holiday for the benefit of workingmen the equality and dignity of labor is emphasized. Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained. So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.”
The actual law was refreshingly short – a mere 83 words:
At the time the law was passed, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks. People of all ages, including children, and particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions.
As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture, labor unions began to rise in power and influence. Unions and workers began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. Many of these events were marked by violence (see, for example, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which resulted in the death of numerous workers and police).
On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding what is considered to be the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
The notion of a “worker’s holiday,” caught on across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later - shortly after the Pullman railway strike.
On June 26, 1984 the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.
In the wake of this massive unrest and in an effort to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed the act making Labor Day a legal holiday and it was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland shortly after.