In the 1870s and 80s, labor unions were growing stronger. Strikes were becoming common and violent. Employers would aggressively punish workers for organizing. Workers would fight those who tried to take their jobs during strikes. Something had to give.
September 5, 1882, the Central Labor Union of New York City gathered 10,000 workers to march on Union Square. They demanded higher pay, shorter hours and safer workplaces. CLU representatives urged other labor unions to follow their lead. In 1883, others around the country joined Central in a demonstration of unity. At this point, workers were taking an unpaid day off to protest. Unions pushed local governments to make a paid holiday to celebrate the American worker.
In 1885 and 1886, various cities around the country declared the first Monday in September to be a workmen's holiday. February 21, 1887, Oregon became the first state to recognize Labor Day. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York followed that year.
Not until 1894 would the United States make Labor Day a national holiday. It would take a dramatic nationwide event. May 11 of that year, Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union leaders. June 26, American Railroad Union joined in the strike. Railroad traffic throughout the country was crippled. The federal government sent troops to Chicago to break the strike. Over a dozen workers were killed.
In the aftermath of this bloody dispute, Labor Day was put into legislation and workers' rights took front stage. Shorter work days, child labor, mandated breaks, minimum wages and workplace safety would all be addressed by the government in coming years.