As we celebrate Labor Day weekend, here’s a bit of background on the holiday, how it came to be, and some events that happened on Labor Days throughout history.

Illustration of the violence in Chicago during the 1894 Pullman factory strike.
Violence in Chicago escalated when federal troops came to break the 1894 Pullman factory strike, more than one thousand rail cars were destroyed, and 13 people were killed.

In the spring of 1894 – and after several years of growing labor unrest across the nation – workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago staged a strike to protest low wages and the firings of union representatives. The strike disrupted rail traffic across the nation, and riots left 13 people dead in that city. The federal government ordered troops to quell the uprisings and restore rail service.

To make amends with the labor movement, Congress passed legislation that created this day to honor workers across the nation. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894, establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated the first Monday each September.

Head and shoulders illustration of President Grover Cleveland.
President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law on June 28, 1894.

Labor Day, in fact, became the fifth federal holiday behind Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day, all four of which Congress enacted in 1870. Labor Day was created before Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day and a legal holiday since 1938) and Memorial Day (observed as Decoration Day since shortly after the Civil War and made a legal holiday in 1971).

It celebrates an American workforce that includes the private sector along with the 24 million people who work in federal, state, and local government jobs. Combined, the U.S. military – encompassing active duty, reserves, Defense Department, and civilian positions – employs roughly 2.7 million workers.

With Labor Day falling on a different date each year, September 6 has had its share of them. Some historic military events happening on that day over time, offering a reminder that the men and women in uniform rarely get Labor Day off:

In 1909, word finally arrived that explorer and U.S. Naval officer Robert Peary had reached the North Pole five months earlier, on April 6 that year.

A photograph of the first military tank prototype went for a test drive in Great Britain to use in World War I.
The first military tank prototype, nicknamed Little Willie.

In 1915, the first military tank prototype went for a test drive in Great Britain to use in World War I. The war ended four years later, but many nations – the United States among them – began building tanks that were part of major battles during World War II.

In 1965, a joint venture of U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops fought to take out the Viet Cong’s 1st regiment and 200 of their soldiers in Operation Piranha, near Chu Lai.

The Soviet Air Force MIG-25 at Hakodate, Japan.
The Soviet Air Force MIG-25 at Hakodate, Japan.

In 1976, a pilot in the Soviet Air Force flew a MIG-25 to Hakodate, Japan, where he landed and requested asylum in the U.S. The plane the Soviets proclaimed as the best fighter jet in the world was now in the hands of the Americans. The pilot, Lt. Viktor Belenko got his wish, came to the U.S., and the episode served as a great embarrassment to the USSR.

In 2004, 150 men in Team A, 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry became the first Army National Guard unit from Guam to serve in a combat role. They deployed to Eritrea on the horn of Africa, on the watch for terrorists coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter a war that began three years earlier and ended last month, after 20 years.

Enjoy your Labor Day weekend, with a tip of the cap to those who will labor through it.

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