The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.
In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From them developed the movement to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
The History Channel says this:
As the Industrial Revolution took hold of the nation, the average American in the late 1800s worked 12-hour days, seven days a week in order to make a basic living. Children were also working, as they provided cheap labor to employers and laws against child labor were not strongly enforced.
With the long hours and terrible working conditions, American unions became more prominent and voiced their demands for a better way of life. On Tuesday September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from city hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first-ever Labor Day parade. Participants took an upaid day-off to honor the workers of America, as well as vocalize issues they had with employers. As years passed, more states began to hold these parades, but Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later.
On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. They sought support from their union led by Eugene V. Debs and on June 26 the American Railroad Union called a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Within days, 50,000 rail workers complied and railroad traffic out of Chicago came to a halt. On July 4, President Grover Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago. Much rioting and bloodshed ensued, but the government's actions broke the strike and the boycott soon collapsed. Debs and three other union officials were jailed for disobeying the injunction. The strike brought worker's rights to the public eye and Congress declared, in 1894, that the first Monday in September would be the holiday for workers, known as Labor Day.
In the 1886 there was an estimated 1 million trade union members (1886 was also the year that Congress voted to legally approve trade unions and Corporations received some of the rights or status of "individuals").
According to Truthout, "For the first time in the past quarter of a century, in 2007 US unions increased their share of membership among workers, according to the annual union membership report released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions added about 310,000 members last year, raising the unionized share of the workforce to 12.1 percent from 12 percent in 2006.
The increase is small, and may well reflect statistical variation rather than an actual increase in the union membership share, but the uptick is striking because it is the first time the union share has increased since the bureau began collecting annual union membership rates in 1983.
The small national rise reflected a large increase in union membership in California, partially offset by substantial declines in the Midwest."
It is estimated that there are 2.4 union members in California alone and that total union membership sits at 12.1 percent of the U.S. work force (the AFL-CIO has a reported 10.5 million members and the fast growing SEIU has about 2 million members). The BLS puts total union membership at 15.7 million workers.
Interestingly, as the economy is tanking, interest in unions is increasing and unions are pushing hard to have Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act which "would force employers to recognize the union as the workers' bargaining agent if 50 percent sign the authorization cards -- streamlining the process from six weeks to what could be a matter of days and doing away with the ballots. For decades, the process of a work force becoming unionized has been based on a secret-ballot election. First, workers with interest in a union sign authorization cards. If 30 percent sign, the National Labor Relations Board schedules an election that the government agency supervises. A majority vote allows in a union."
The Kansas City Star reports:
Opponents of the bill are focusing on the provision of replacing secret elections with card signing, calling it anti-democratic.
“Most people sign those (election authorization) cards just to get the union toughs off their back,” said Greg Mourad, director of legislation for the National Right to Work Committee. “In the current process, the unions get to have their say, and the companies get to have their say. Then the workers decided in the privacy of a secret-ballot election process. Whether or not the current process works, card check is not the solution to the perceived problem.”
Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the bill would help level the playing field.
“Given the reign of terror employers are allowed to exercise during what’s commonly called the union-election process, the Employee Free Choice Act would help restore democracy to the workplace,” Ancel said.