Labor Day began in the late 1800s as a way to honor workers, but today it's a three-day weekend of back-to-school sales, barbecues and day trips. This year, nearly 200,000 Idahoans took trips of 50 miles or more over the holiday.
The idea of honoring the American worker dates back to 1882. Many say it was Matthew Maguire, a machinist who ultimately served as secretary of New York's Central Labor Union, who put together the first U.S. Labor Day parade in September 1882. That inaugural parade started modestly but, when an uninvited band showed up, the unruly gathering swelled to 10,000 people.
In the following years, labor leaders selected the first Monday of September as Labor Day and, after nearly two dozen states adopted the holiday, Congress in 1894 declared it a federal observance.
America's history of unionized labor came with many battle scars. Millions of workers suffered back-breaking conditions in 12-hour workdays and extremely hazardous environments. It was not unusual to see women in their ninth month of pregnancy working along side children in garment factories.
Labor unrest reached a number of violent crescendos in the late-18th and 20th centuries. In 1892, miners in northern Idaho embarked on a strike
against generally poor wages, working and living conditions, with their grievances amplified when management introduced new technology that replaced many jobs and led to reduced wages. Replacement workers—"scabs"—were brought in to break the strike and a small army of private agents were hired to infiltrate the union and protect the new workers.
As the situation deteriorated and a union member was killed, striking miners took up weapons and faced off with mine guards and agents. Though both sides accused the other of firing first, a gun battle broke out nonetheless, leaving a number dead and wounded, and as many as 600 ultimately arrested.
Two years later, violence again broke out when the Pullman Sleeping Company cut wages to thousands of men, women and children in Chicago. The American Railway Union went toe-to-toe against Pullman and the U.S. government. The strike swelled to 250,000 workers in 25 states with bloody riots quelled by U.S. Army troops. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland ordered a national commission to investigate the cause of the unrest and the U.S. Supreme Court even ordered the Pullman Company to stop lording over its own community, dubbed "Pullman, Illinois." The community was annexed back into the city of Chicago, thus ending a true "company town." Much of what was once Pullman, Illinois is an historic district.
Today, the Boise Central Trades and Labor Council will hold its annual Labor Day Picnic at Boise's newly named Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park, from noon to 4 p.m. The picnic is the union's annual effort to replenish its food banks, so admission is a suggested donation of five non-perishable food items or $5.