Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

The late nineteenth century was a time of national labor unrest when workers nation-wide protested deplorable working conditions. Labor unions in New York City celebrated the first Labor Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Ten thousand workers took unpaid leave to march from City Square to Union Hall. The idea caught on, and many states followed New York’s lead. In 1891, Montana joined nine other states whose legislatures had previously designated the holiday: New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey and Ohio.

Early telephone operators often worked ten to twelve hour days for as little as thirty dollars per month. In 1907, Butte operators struck and were granted a minimum wage of fifty dollars per month, an eight-hour workday, and a closed shop. These operators are working in Helena in 1906. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 75-43 folder 23
On September 7, 1891, flowers looked their prettiest and birds sang their sweetest when Montana celebrated that first Labor Day. Deer Lodge was the main center of celebration where people from all points gathered. They came from the country, from outlying camps, and on the train from Butte. Seventeen rail cars dispatched some two thousand visitors and two bands. They formed a procession and marched to a pavilion prepared for the occasion. Hon. E. D. Matts of Missoula, who authored the legislation making Labor Day a state holiday, addressed the crowd. Other speeches followed, filling two hours. The crowd listened intently. At four o’clock, rail cars brought five hundred more guests from Butte where all the labor organizations had marched in a huge parade. Revelers quietly scattered, some participating in races and games, others strolling the grounds among the trees and quietly enjoying the holiday. An evening of dancing brought the pleasant day to a close.

This photo by N. A. Forsyth, taken circa 1905, shows the dangerous working conditions in Butte's mines that contributed to labor strikes and unrest. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.168
Several years later in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation designating the first Monday in September a federal holiday. Congress passed the Labor Day act on the heels of a violent strike by employees of the American Railway Union in Chicago. Federal troops were called in and thirty-four workers lost their lives during vicious riots. Although President Cleveland was not favorable to unions, he signed the act in an attempt to mend damaged ties with American workers.
While we celebrate the workingman’s holiday today more as a symbol of summer’s end and the start of the school year, we should remember that it was a originally a workingman’s holiday born of national unrest.

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