Labor Day may be the most “generic” of major American holidays. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, even Halloween, all have clear and distinct meanings and traditions associated with them. The holidays set aside to honor specific individuals (e.g., Presidents Day for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) have faded somewhat in the direction of generic status, but at least there’s still some recognition of what and whom they are intended to honor. (Probably more so in the case of Martin Luther King Day, since the struggle to have that made into a holiday is still fresh in people’s memories.) Memorial Day and Veterans Day too are somewhat generic to many, yet they are taken very seriously by a good portion of the populace, to honor those who’ve served in the military.
But what of Labor Day? What percentage of the population genuinely celebrates “labor” on that day? 2%? 5%? Heck, how many people even know what “labor” we’re supposed to be honoring? (The labor associated with childbirth perhaps?)
The vast majority of people treat Labor Day as an extra day off in the late summer, and they do whatever they would do on any other such day off. Even more so than for Presidents Day, Memorial Day, or any other, that’s all it is.
Surely this is at least in part a function of the virtual demise of the labor movement in the United States in recent decades. Labor movement as in unions. Labor movement as in specific political parties representing the working class, such as the Socialists and the Communists. That labor movement.
Labor Day started as a way of honoring and recognizing that movement of working people, a way of showing appreciation for the working class of the nation who built the country and keep it functioning, the same way we have holidays to honor soldiers and great leaders and others we deem essential.
From the beginning, though, there was controversy and compromise about Labor Day.
Which specific individual first seriously proposed setting aside a day to honor workers is unclear, with the main contenders being Matthew Maguire, machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, and Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor. In any case, whoever’s idea it was, the Knights of Labor held a parade on September 5, 1882 as a show of strength of the labor movement, then made it an annual event by repeating the parade on September 5, 1883.
Starting in 1885, a few scattered municipalities bestowed formal recognition on this new Labor Day, followed by states, beginning with Oregon in 1887, and then Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York later that same year. Most designated a day in September for the holiday, but not all. Oregon, for instance, chose a day in June.
But meanwhile, there was the potential for this new celebration of labor to go in a more radical direction. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that they would fight for the eight hour day to be legally designated a full work day by no later than May 1, 1886, and if it were not, they would call a general strike. They did not achieve the eight hour day by that deadline, but they did win several smaller victories, mostly for workers in Chicago where they were strongest.
That all came to an end on May 3, 1886 however, when police fired on a crowd of strikers, killing four and wounding many others. The next day, a mass protest meeting was called for Haymarket Square. At the end of it, when only a minority of the protestors remained, police charged the crowd to break up what was left of the meeting. A bomb was thrown from the crowd, killing a police officer. The police responded by killing and injuring more of the workers.
More importantly, the government and the industrialists responded by cracking down on the labor movement and the Left in general. Among other things, they arrested eight local labor leaders for the bomb throwing incident. They were unable to produce any evidence to speak of that any of the eight had thrown the bomb or in any way ordered or been connected to the bomb throwing, yet the climate was such that they were all convicted and sentenced to die. (They were pardoned many years later, but too late for some, who had already been hanged.)
There was an outcry against the police killings of the Chicago workers, and certainly the highly dubious trial and convictions-probably more so internationally than even from the working people in the United States. A movement commenced to somehow honor the martyrs of Haymarket. In 1889, the First (Paris) Congress of the Second Socialist International proposed that May 1 be designated a day for the international celebration of working people, and gradually more and more countries recognized that day, to where by now almost every country in the world celebrates International Workers Day (colloquially known as “May Day”) on May 1, either formally as a legal holiday or informally.
So in the late 1880s and into the 1890s, as more municipalities and states, and ultimately the federal government, took up the matter of whether to celebrate Labor Day, one of the issues they had to consider was whether to go with the May 1 date, or stick with September or some other time of the year.
May 1 proved to have too radical a symbolic importance. Those opposing the working class were somewhat amenable to allowing them a holiday, but not one associated with the incidents of Haymarket, or the international Socialist movement. So it became the norm to designate the first Monday of September as Labor Day. The federal government eventually clinched it in 1894 by choosing that date to be the federal holiday of Labor Day.
A good portion of the American labor movement was fine with this compromise. They welcomed a chance to establish that while they were champions of the workers, they wanted no truck with the Haymarket anarchists or other bomb throwing types. They shied away from the May 1 date in order to indicate that they were the “safe” alternative to the Socialists and Communists.
Even the compromise version of Labor Day retained a certain amount of political bite for a few decades, as unions won their share of victories, and paraded with gusto on the first Monday in September each year, but with the fading of the labor movement came the fading of Labor Day.
You know, that late summer day that has something to do with pregnant women, when we get to take a day off and have a picnic….
“A Brief History of the Celebration of Labor Day.” About.com.
“Labor Day.” Wilstar.
“Labor Day/May Day.” Campbell Gen Ed Labour.
“May Day-The Real Labor Day.” Anarchist Library.