Today we celebrate in Spain and in some other European countries Labour [Labor in American English] Day. The same holiday is observed in the US on the first Monday in September.
Watch this three-minute History Channel video clip about the history of Labour Day in US and Canada and answer the questions below about it.
The activity is suitable for intermediate students.
1 What was imposed in the work place in Canada and US in the 19th century?
2 Why was 1872 important for unions?
3 Why was September 5th chosen to celebrate a workers parade in New York City?
4 What activities did workers do on September 5th 1882 in Reservoir Park?
5 What did workers have to choose when the parade was moved to the first Monday in September?
6 What happened in 1887?
7 What happened in 1894?
8 What three things happened in the second half of the 20th century?
9 What significance does Labour Day have in US today?
To check your answers, you can read the transcript below.
The Industrial Revolution modernized the United States and Canada during the 19th century. As people enjoyed steady employment, they compromised their rights in the work place. Longer work hours and pay cuts were imposed. US labour groups began protecting themselves by unionising. In Canada unions were illegal until 1872 when thousands of autolabourers marched to Prime Minister John McDonalds’ home. That year Canada wiped the entire Union Law from its books, and the march became an annual Canadian tradition.
In 1882 Toronto labour officials invited an American union leader Peter G. McGuire to Toronto’s Labour celebrations. McGuire was so impressed that he suggested a workers parade in New York City Central Labour Union. He chose September 5th as the date because it filled a long void between July 4th and Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, that same year a machinist from Patternson New Jersey, Matthew McGuire also proposed a labourers celebration. On Tuesday September 5th 1882 thousands of New York City labourers marched from City Hall to Union Square. They gathered in Reservoir Park for an afternoon of picnics, concerts and speeches, rallying for an eight-hour work day.
Two years later the Central Labour Union moved the parade to the first Monday in September. They also encouraged all US cities to follow New York’s lead and marched for the working men’s holiday. For many the choice was to either spend the day at work or march without pay. That began to change when Oregon became the first state to legalise the Labour Day holiday in 1887. Other states, including New York, soon followed.
It took a political disaster to put Labour Day on the national calendar. In 1894 railway workers in Pullman, Illinois, went on strike to protest wage cuts. President Grover Cleveland faced pressure to end the demonstrations and sent 12,000 federal troops to break the strike. Violence erupted. Two strikers were killed and Cleveland’s harsh methods made headlines. In an attempt to appease the nation’s workers he signed a bill to make Labour Day a federal holiday. Cleveland still lost that year’s election.
American workers continued to gain power through the 1950’s when over a third of all labour forces were unionized. Labour Day had become a time to rally workers for safer conditions, fair pay and benefits. But in the second half of the 20th century the US labour force diminished, many factories closed, jobs were outsourced to other countries.
Today, workers still parade through blue-coloured neighborhoods on Labour Day and speeches unite the ever dwindling labour force. But the day’s true call has quietened. For now most Americans leisurely enjoy the holiday as summer’s last bow.