Sketch of the 1894 Pullman Strike
Sketch of the 1894 Pullman Strike - 
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Doug Krizner: 125 years ago this month, American workers celebrated the first Labor Day, but it wasn't official. Jeremy Hobson has more.

[ music ]

Jeremy Hobson: This recording is from 1890. It's actually older than Labor Day as we know it, which started in 1894.

At that time, the standard workday was 12 hours, says Cornell University Labor Studies professor Richard Hurd.

Richard Hurd: The move for the 8-hour day was something that was global in the 1880s and 1890s, trying to change the situation so workers could actually have leisure time as well.

In the summer of 1894, rail workers in Chicago went on strike. President Grover Cleveland responded with National Guard troops to break it up and arrest the leader.

Hurd: The action by the President was extremely unpopular with the general public. It was an election year. So he chose this time to respond to the pressure to do something about having a Labor Day and selected the first Monday in September.

It didn't work politically. Cleveland's Democratic party was crushed two months later in the biggest midterm defeat in U.S. history.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson