RALEIGH — A three-day weekend. The unofficial end to summer. A last call for beach trips and barbecues. For all the ways North Carolinians will celebrate Labor Day in 2016, little thought may be given to the origins of this national holiday and just how much the history and consequences of the labor movement factor in to our daily lives on every other day of the year.
In the decades following the the Civil War, technological and business innovation ushered in the industrial revolution, resulting in the largest leap in productive capacity and prosperity the world had ever seen. American industrialists such as Carnegie, Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts amassed unimaginable wealth supporting, fueling and connecting the nation like never before.
As farm and factory workers endured unending work schedules, working and living in less than ideal conditions in myriad company-owned towns, labor leaders emerged and began to organize on behalf of the working man.
American innovators and opportunists alike became known as robber barons, as popular perceptions of their ruthless tactics, juxtaposed with their workers’ wanting circumstances, bred a dual resentment that powered the proliferation of unions that campaigned for shorter hours, collective bargaining and safer working conditions.
Some municipalities in the Northeast began recognizing a working man’s holiday in the 1880s, with New York City’s influential Central Labor Union marking Sept. 5, 1882, as the Big Apple’s first official Labor Day. Followed up the next year on the same date, the holiday spread with the growth of labor unions to industrial centers around the country, with Oregon passing the first statewide law designating Labor Day in 1887.
It was that same year the North Carolina Department of Labor was founded. It was also the year Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union moved in to the Old North State, led by former commissioner of agriculture and publisher of the Progressive Farmer, Leonidas Polk, to fight what it deemed unfair merchant credit practices and to advocate for farm workers.
As is the case today, agriculture was a defining industry in North Carolina, but it was not alone. Burgeoning furniture and textile production would begin changing the economy in North Carolina during this period, employing workers that identified with the growing labor movement’s message.
In May 1894, a strike by workers of Chicago’s rail car maker Pullman Company in response to lowered wages resulted in a nationwide boycott of Pullman rail cars by the American Railway Union, ultimately shutting down rail traffic across half the country. President Grover Cleveland sent in the Army to clear railway obstructionists and violence ensued. The next month, U.S. Congress passed legislation designating the first Monday of September each year as Labor Day.
Credit for proposing the first ever Labor Day is divided between secretary of New York’s Central Labor Union and machinist, Matthew Maguire, and Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Regardless of who suggested it first, the men had more in common than just their phonetically similar names.
Both men were members of the Socialist Labor Party Club of New York, representing a political ideology that courses through the spread of the worldwide labor movement. In the years before being designated a legal holiday, the labor movement had already affected changes across the country in the length of legal work days, to “free the labour of this country from capitalistic slavery,” as described by the General Congress of Labour at Baltimore in 1866.
The U.S. Congress passed an eight-hour workday law in 1868, though it was rarely enforced.
The movement was praised by German philosopher Karl Marx and later by Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, as it represented progress toward collectivist ideologies’ goals.
Understandably, the movement created friction with the laissez-faire capitalism that was a cornerstone of the United States’ founding, as its ultimate goal was creating a socialist commonwealth. It gained momentum nonetheless.
By the turn of the century, with hundreds of textile and tobacco mills and confronted with the labor movement’s growing agitation, North Carolina manufacturers voluntarily began implementing labor reforms. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, textile leaders met in Charlotte in 1901, striking agreements between 100 manufacturers in the state to maintain 66-hour work weeks, and to not employ children under 12 years old during the school year.
The position of N.C. Commissioner of Labor was also changed to an independently elected office during this time, instead of an appointment by the governor.
In the decades to follow, labor reforms became national law. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 sought to support minimum wages and maximum hours standards, substantially benefiting North Carolina workers with higher wages.
However, over the next decades North Carolina pushed back on the labor movement in other areas, especially on the issue of unions. In 1947 the General Assembly passed the right-to-work law, prohibiting closed shop practices that made union membership a condition of employment, as well as prohibiting the mandatory collection of union dues from workers in the state.
North Carolina remains a right-to-work state, even while implementing national labor standards in areas of health, safety, wage and hour, and child labor.
While often taken for granted now, the legal changes brought about by the labor movement have become a staple in modern American life. Weekends, lunch breaks, the eight-hour workday, and health and safety standards, to name a few, are all products of the movement which is honored on Labor Day.
With its significant manufacturing history, North Carolina has been affected by these changes more than many other states, while at the same time avoiding some of the more sinister collectivist elements of the movement that overtook nations through out the 20th century — upholding the Old North State’s reputation as a bastion of freedom.