Birmingham and the origins of Labor Day

The CMC Steelworker statue at CMC Steel. Photo via Nathan Watson for Bham Now

Although Labor Day 2020 is stripped of the traditional parades and celebrations, it is a wonderful time to look back and reflect on the origins of the holiday.

The Origins of Labor Day

Beginning in the late 19th century, trade unions and labor movements proposed setting aside one day a year to celebrate labor. Labor movements began in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, as agricultural jobs declined and were replaced by factory jobs. Labor movements fought to secure workers’ rights, and won on several occasions. For instance, the movements secured the two-day weekend, minimum wage, paid holiday, the achievement of the eight-hour work day and the end of child labor.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state to celebrate Labor Day as a public holiday. Then, in 1894, Labor Day became an official federal holiday, celebrating the contributions that workers have made to country.

Labor Day In Birmingham

“Steelworker”, a fiberglass structure by Texas-born American artist Luis Jiménez, Jr, depicts an African-American steelworker with a long ladle. (far left) Photo via Birmingham Museum of Art on Facebook

The history of Birmingham is intertwined with that of its labor unions. With the rise of the Birmingham steel industry, waves of laborers migrated to the Magic City in search of better wages.

In 1890, Alabama’s miners affiliated with the newly formed United Mineworkers of America. Meanwhile, skilled craftsmen in Birmingham launched a chapter of the American Federation of Labor. Similarly, the local trades’ council launched a newspaper aimed at union members, the Labor Advocate.

Significantly, Birmingham played a leading role in the 1934 Textile workers strike. After World War I, the wartime boom for cotton goods ended. With the textile mills in the South facing an issue with overproduction, industry leaders limited break times, increased supervisors and more. In July of 1934, textile workers in Birmingham and other Alabama cities began to strike. Soon, the strike went nationwide, with over 400,000 workers participating.

By the 21st Century, labor union participation in Alabama has dropped from a peak of 30% of the workforce, to 9%.

How will you remember the history of Labor Day in Birmingham? Tag us @bhamnow to let us know!

  • Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.