Celebrating Labor Day

Essential Question

To what extent have the conditions of American workers improved over the past 100 years?


After the Civil War, the United States witnessed an accelerating movement of people westward, a rapidly increasing number of immigrants, and the large growth of urban areas. Along with these trends, the massive changes in how corporations were organized and operated and the growth of the labor movement during this period wrought significant changes in American life. The right to organize, to bargain for wages and working conditions, the equitable distribution of wealth and power, and the role of government in ensuring social justice are issues that remain sources of controversy today.

Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and the first general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, and later first secretary of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the New York Central Labor Union, are both credited with being the first to propose the idea of a holiday honoring American workers. But regardless of who originated the idea, there is no doubt that on September 5, 1882, some 10,000 to 20,000 workers, at the risk of losing their jobs, gathered in New York City and marched from City Hall to Union Square in support of an eight-hour workday. The idea quickly spread to many communities, and in 1887, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday. And after having used federal troops to suppress the Pullman strike, an anti-union U.S. President Grover Cleveland sensed that he had to recognize the contributions of workers and together with Congress, enacted the first national Labor Day in 1894.

For more background on the first Labor Day, how it came about, and what it means, see the U.S. Department of Labor website.


We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright. These in brief are the primary demands made by the Trade Unions in the name of labor. These are the demands made by labor upon modern society and in their consideration is involved the fate of civilization.

Samuel Gompers, address to American Federation of Labor, August 28, 1893
University of Maryland

Why, it may be asked, do students need to know about the history of union membership? Because the free trade union movement is one of the bulwarks of a democratic society and because some of the fundamental economic and social reforms of the past century—such as the banning of sweatshops and child labor—can scarcely be fathomed without knowing something of the saga of the labor movement. The labor movement story is one of men and women, laws and campaigns, ideas and conflict. This is the stuff of history.

Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature. (NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), p. 69.

Looking at the two quotes, would you agree that Diane Ravitch would have been a supporter of Samuel Gompers had she lived in the late nineteenth century? Explain.

Lesson Activities

  1. Questionnaire and discussion. To initiate a discussion of labor issues in the last third of the nineteenth century, have students respond by indicating whether they strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, or disagree with each of the following statements. Create a chart divided into four columns, and respond to each statement. Tell the students that they should respond to the statements from the perspective of a worker and a business owner living in the late nineteenth century, and then respond to the same statements from the perspective of a worker and a business owner in the late twentieth century:
    1. Workers have the right to organize and bargain as a group about working conditions.
    2. Workers have the right to protest, hold parades, give speeches, and withhold their services without being fired by their employers.
    3. Eight hours is a reasonable period of time for a workday.
    4. Business owners have the right to establish working conditions at their companies.
    5. Business owners should be able to prevent unions from organizing workers they have hired.
    6. A business owner should be able to control an entire industry. For example, if a company is able to control most railroads, mines, or steel mills, it should be allowed to do so.
    7. It is the function of government to make laws regulating business practices, such as the number of businesses a corporation can own and how much of the marketplace it can control.
    8. It is a proper function of government to make laws regulating working conditions such as pay, hours of work, and health and safety conditions.
    9. Government should be provided with the power to help end strikes.
  2. Background on labor history. Students should have some familiarity with, or conduct some research about, labor history from approximately 1870 to 1900. One way to review or reconstruct this period, is to complete, individually or as a class, a chart of notable labor disputes during this time with the categories of: Date, Labor Dispute, Place, Company and Leader, Union and Leader, Issue(s), and Outcome.
  3. Simulation. After students have completed activities 1 and 2, divide the class into four groups: company executives, labor leaders, progressive reformers and newspaper reporters. Have each group research the eight-hour-day movement. Conduct a public hearing in which students playing the role of senators question representatives from each of the four groups. Have newspaper reporters prepare articles on the hearings. Have legislators write a bill creating a law mandating no more than an eight-hour day for presentation to the president. Have the class discuss the bill, and decide if the president should sign it.
    For a brief overview of the eight hour day movement, see The Encyclopedia of Chicago.
    A song written in the 1800s during the union campaign for the eight hour day still resonates for many of us working in the 21st century:
    We mean to make things over
          We're tired of toil for nought
    But bare enough to live on; never
          An hour for thought.
    We want to feel the sunshine; we
          Want to smell the flowers
    We're sure that God has willed it
          And we mean to have eight hours.
    We're summoning our forces from
          Shipyard, shop and mill
    Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
          Eight hours for what we will!
    Song sung by the Knights of Labor and other workers (1886)
    For information on the Haymarket tragedy (described in Joshua Freeman’s essay in the American National Holidays issue of HISTORY NOW) as well as the Chicago Public Library archives on anarchism.
    For information about the Knights of Labor, the Haymarket affair, and the life and work of Lucy Parsons, union advocate and wife of Albert Parsons, unjustly accused and executed as a participant in the Haymarket riot see the Lucy Parsons Project.

Further Activities

  1. Have students research the history of Labor Day in their communities. For one example of an in-depth look at local labor issues see the newspaper article, "How Labor Won Its Day" from the Detroit News.
  2. Have students interview one or more retired workers about their conditions of employment when they were younger. Ask them to get ready for the interviews by reading about earlier working conditions and prepare lists of questions to ask the interviewees.
  3. Compare the actions of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, a president who opposed labor unions but declared Labor Day a national holiday, and the issues faced and the actions taken by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld (see the Pardon of Governor John P. Algeld page from the University of Missouri Kansas City for information about Governor John Peter Altgeld and the pardoning of the Haymarket prisoners). Who did more for workers?
  4. Research the life of key business and labor leaders in the last part of the nineteenth century. Report on their goals, how they achieved or failed to achieve their objectives, and what difference they made in American society.
  5. Debate the following topics: If people work hard and play by the rules they will be successful. Newspapers and television stations report more favorably about (business) (labor). The capitalist economic system provides the greatest opportunities for the most people. Labor Day has lost its significance because all the important issues have been resolved.

Additional Resources