Labor Day looms as the last gasp of summertime, most often celebrated by a family barbecue, final day trip to the beach or a long weekend away. This year, why not use your Labor Day weekend getaway to teach your kids about labor history?
There are historic sites, museums and markers from New York to California that celebrate America’s rich labor history.
Spend a day at New York’s Tenement Museum to understand what life was like in the cramped worker housing, or tour the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago to explore a utopian worker community. Learn about the workers who fought and sometimes died for eight-hour work days or safer working conditions. Or the women who fought for their jobs and dignity in the Bread and Roses Strike in Massachusetts and Jane Addams, whose Hull-House settlement house in Chicago was designed to help bring a measure of dignity to all workers and immigrants.
Labor Day was started in 1882 by the Central Labor Union of New York City as a day off for working citizens. It became a federal holiday in 1894, two months after the May Day Riots. But as union membership has declined in America, so has the connection between Labor Day and labor history. The following is a brief list of places to take your kids on a family vacation that celebrates America’s working spirit and the people who fought for better lives for its workers.
New York City
Triangle Factory Fire in New York City: The Triangle Factory Fire in New York City took place on March 25, 1911, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers and became one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed about 600 workers who were mostly young immigrant women from Eastern Europe. Some of the workers were only 12 or 13 years old, but worked 14-hour shifts during a 60- to 72-hour workweek. The women on the ninth floor of the building had been locked in and cut off from any means of escaping the fire. The tragedy stunned the nation and became a catalyst for a broad range of reforms.
In the next few years, New York City and New York State adopted a battery of new laws to protect the public from fires and ensure the health and safety of workers. The building at 245 Greene St., Manhattan, that once housed the factory now is a part of New York University. A ceremony takes place each year in front of the building to commemorate the fire and its victims.
Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side: This museum tells the stories of immigrants who lived at 97 Orchard St., a tenement built in 1863 on the Lower East Side of New York City. This building housed an estimated 7,000 people from more than 20 nations between the time it was built and the time it was closed in 1935. Orchard Street was known as a Jewish enclave, and the eight city blocks it covered were filled with similar tenements. Multiple families lived at 97 Orchard St. in sectioned-off apartments of two to three rooms.
Steel Industry in Pittsburgh: In 1901, the U.S. Steel Corporation was formed, and by 1911 Pittsburgh was the nation’s eighth largest city, producing as much as one half of the nation’s steel. The city’s population reached over 500,000, many of whom were immigrants from Europe. During World War II, Pittsburgh produced 95 million tons of steel. Much of that mighty past is gone now, but parts of it have been preserved as the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Visit the Tour Anytime Web site to choose a tour and download a map with the points of interest marked. Then call (412) 254-2154 to listen to the tour on your cell phone. There is no charge for the tours beyond the cost of the cell phone minutes used.
Bread and Roses Strike: In Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, a state law reduced the hours in the workweek, so the textile mills cut the workers’ pay. The majority of Lawrence’s textile workers walked off the job and stayed off for nine weeks during a harsh winter. The name of the Bread and Roses Strike came from the practice of women strikers who carried banners proclaiming, “We want bread, and roses, too,” symbolizing their fight for both subsistence wages and dignity. The mill owners and city authorities called out the state militia, jailed many strikers, and even planted dynamite to discredit the strikers and their union. Public opinion and a Congressional investigation forced the mill owners to give in to most of the strikers’ demands. The strike highlighted issues of child labor, workplace safety, and subsistence wages. An annual festival on Labor Day allows visitors to have a historic look at Lawrence and the Bread and Roses Strike. The Lawrence Heritage State Park has a restored boarding house with two floors of interactive exhibits that tell the tale of Lawrence, one of the nation’s first planned industrial cities.
Samuel Gompers statue: Samuel Gompers was an American labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. He founded the American Federation of Labor and served as the AFL’s president from 1886 until his death in 1924. His philosophy of labor unions was centered on economic ends for workers that included higher wages, shorter hours, and safe working conditions so that they could enjoy an “American” standard of living—a decent home, decent food and clothing, and money enough to educate their children. The statue is at 10th and Massachusetts avenues in Washington D.C.
Haymarket riots in Chicago: Workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. went on strike on May Day 1886 in the hope of winning a shorter work week. The strike escalated into a riot on May 4 when strikers clashed with police at Haymarket Square, the area where farmers traditionally sold their produce. The site, a few blocks west of the Loop at Randolph and Des Plaines streets, now is home to a memorial sculpture. At one point in the melee, a pipe bomb was thrown at police. The explosion killed seven policemen and injured more than 60 others. The police fired into the crowd of workers, killing four. Although it was never proven who threw the bomb, eight men were put on trial and seven were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Four were hanged in November 1887, one committed suicide and three were later pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld. Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument is located at the Forest Home Cemetery in near west suburban Forest Park, where seven of the eight “martyrs” are buried. Among the famous protestors was Mother Jones a prominent American labor and community organizer who is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.
Jane Addams Hull-House: Jane Addams was a founder of the U.S. Settlement House movement and one of the first women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hull-House opened its doors in 1889 to the recently arrived European immigrants. In its first year of operation, 9,000 people arrived at Hull-House; none were turned away. By 1911, Hull-House had grown to 13 buildings. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is part of the College of Architecture and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago and serves as a memorial to Addams and other social reformers whose work influenced the lives of their immigrant neighbors, as well as national and international public policy reforms.
Chicago Stockyards: This city was once known as the “hog butcher to the world.” Stunningly, the stockyards, made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” continued operating until 1971. The Union Stockyard Gate, a National Historic Landmark, still stands at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street on the southwest side of Chicago.Pullman Hotel Florence in Chicago. Photo credit: Peter Fitzgerald, Wiki Commons
The Pullman Historic District: Pullman was built between 1880 and 1884 as a utopian industrial town designed and owned by George M. Pullman, president of Pullman’s Palace Car Company, maker of the famous Pullman train coaches. The community, a big attraction during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, offered much better living conditions to most workers. But the dream soured in 1894 when the economy declined, leading Pullman to cut wages — but not rent — for his workers. The workers went on strike and Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union agreed to support the strikers by boycotting Pullman cars, refusing to move them on the rails. With rail service and the U.S. mail disrupted, federal troops were sent in to end the strike. Today, Pullman is a thriving neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Pick up a map from the Visitors Center and take a self-guided walking tour.
Bay View Massacre in Milwaukee: The Bay View Massacre on May 1, 1886, occurred when 7,000 building-trades workers joined 5,000 Polish laborers who had organized at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Milwaukee to strike for an eight-hour work day. By May 3, 1886, the numbers had grown to more than 14,000 workers gathering at the Milwaukee Iron Company rolling mill in Bay View. They were met by 250 National Guardsmen under orders from the governor to “shoot to kill” any strikers who attempted to enter. There is a historical marker at the site.
Ludlow Massacre: The coalfields of southern Colorado offered some of the most dangerous mining conditions in the nation. Mines caved in and exploded at twice the national average. Bad or non-existent sewer systems allowed typhoid to rage through the mining towns. The Ludlow Massacre refers to the deaths of 20 people, 11 of them children, during an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914. It is remembered as the bloodiest event in the 1913-1914 southern Colorado Coal Strike. The United Mine Workers of America, which owns the site, erected a monument in memory of the striking miners and their families who died that day. The site was dedicated June 28, 2009, as a National Historic Landmark.
Labor in San Francisco: Early immigrants to California came with skills in many trades. Some hailed from cities and countries where workers were being organized. They chose San Francisco because of its relative isolation, which allowed skilled workers to make demands that their counterparts on the East coast could not. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge, the first public electrical power station in the United States, and see labor murals painted in the lobby of the Rincon Center.