This Is What Labor Day Is

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April 20, 1914 

The good news is that you have work. The bad news is that you work for Mr. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in Ludlow, CO. You live in a tent on company land with your wife and two young sons. It’s hard, but the community of about 1,200 other mining families sticks together and you keep each other’s spirits up. You can’t help but worry lately. You’ve been on the front lines of a strike, because you’ve got to have something just a little better. You only get paid for the coal you dig out of the mountain, but the work you have to do before and after that – like digging tunnels and carting the coal out – you give the company for free. At first you thought maybe the company would listen to you and the other UMWA boys, but the past few days things have been getting kind of nasty.


If that was you, the next thing you would have seen is two companies of Colorado National Guardsmen installing machine guns on a ridge near your camp. You’d have spent the day trying to protect your family from a militia stirred up and paid by mine owners. By dark, the entire camp was on fire. Miners and their wives and children were slaughtered. At least four women and eleven children died in one pit under a burning tent. Because you and your co-workers thought it was reasonable to demand that you not be asked to work more than eight hours a day, and that you be paid for your work.

Today we call that the Ludlow Massacre. The land the camp was on is owned by the UMWA, and there’s a nice monument there.

March 25, 1911 

The early morning is still cold as you walk the few blocks from your parents’ apartment in a Greenwich Village tenement to the Asch Building. You’ll spend the day – Saturday – cutting fabric on the 9th floor, as you do every day. But today is payday! At 16 years old, the thought of putting that seven dollars in your pocket at the end of the day is exciting enough to get you through the day.

If you were that girl, late that afternoon you would have smelled smoke. You would have been part of a panicked crowd pushing for the doors – which the company kept locked to keep you keep you and your co-workers from stealing – and you and 146 other workers from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors would have been asphyxiatd, burned or fallen to your death.

May 4, 1886
You’re standing in Haymarket Square in Chicago chanting, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” You’re tired of working until the bossman lets you go, and you’ve seen too many men die from the working conditions in the plant where you work. This British guy, Samuel Fielden, he’s making a lot of sense to you and the hundreds of other men who have showed up. You’re all pretty angry about what the police did to break the strike at the McCormick plant yesterday.


If you were that man, probably a German immigrant, around 10:30 that night you would have heard a homemade bomb go off, and then gunfire, lots of gunfire. Seven policemen and at least four of your worker brothers would be dead, although no one can honestly say how many strikers were wounded or died.

We celebrate “Labor Day”  in the United States not “in honor of the workingman”, as many will tell you. No, we have a day off because President Grover Cleveland needed to calm the Labor movement in the 1890’s. On this three-day weekend, take a moment to imagine what it was like to be the people described in the events above. They were not unique. Women, men and children all over America, and for decades, bled and died for your eight-hour workday. For your two and three day weekends. The very least we can do is honor their memories once a year.

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