But it took several more years for the federal government to make it a national holiday—while serving a larger political purpose. In the summer of 1894, the Pullman Strike severely disrupted train traffic in the Midwest, and the federal government used a warrant and federal troops to break the strike.
It had started when the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages without cutting rents in the firm town, also known as Pullman. (It is now part of Chicago.)
When angry workers complained, the owner, George Pullman, had them fired. They decided to strike, and other workers from the American Railway Union, led by ardent activist Eugene V. Debs, joined the action. They refused to handle Pullman cars, bringing freight and passenger traffic around Chicago to a standstill. Tens of thousands of workers ran away, wildcat strikes broke out and angry crowds were fired on by authorities.
During the crisis, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill on June 28, 1894, declaring Labor Day a national holiday. Some historians say he feared losing the support of working-class voters.
“There were a lot of political benefits at the time in recognizing Labor Day,” said Joshua B. Freeman, a distinguished professor of history at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
But it was not the only holiday of the workers on the table. Beginning in 1884, the workers’ movement had called for strikes and protests on May 1 to push for an eight-hour workday. That so-called holiday was called May Day and is now celebrated around the world, although it is not officially recognized in the United States.
You could blame the Haymarket affair. On May 4, 1886, a bomb went off during a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in support of an eight-hour workday and against the killing of protesters by police. Authorities opened fire in response, killing seven officers and four protesters.