Labor Day is observed on the first Monday in September across the United States and Canada to honor the contributions working people have made to the strength and success of the country. Celebrating Labor Day in September is one of those cases where Canada and the USA are in accord.
Strikes and protests in Canada and the USA.
The Canadians have been observing the day in September since the 1889s, when a parade was held in support of the Toronto Typographical Union who were on strike for a 58 hour week. Labor protests continued, and by 1872 the Trade Union Act was passed in Canada. Workers were laboring for 12 hours every day, including men, women and children. In the USA, strikes such as the Pullman Railway strike in Illinois were occurring in all parts of the country, with riots and demonstrations which were being quelled with violence and arrests.
Who started Labor Day in the USA?
Many people believe that Peter J. McGuire got the idea of a labor day from the Canadians, but recent research gives the credit to a machinist Matthew Maguire, who was a labor leader in New York unions. Either way, first Labor Day holiday in New York City was planned for Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and by 1884, they changed it to Monday, and encouraged other organizations to follow suit. Oregon was the first state to pass a law establishing Labor Day, which they observed in June of 1887, but other states rapidly followed, with September being their choice.
Why is it in September?
Why didn’t they choose May 1, which was already known in other countries as International Workers Day? It was not, as people might surmise, because of the association with the Communists, as Australia had the idea of a workers’ holiday as early as 1856. Labor representatives from the US had participated in the International Labor Congress in Paris in 1889, and as a result of that meeting, May 1, 1890 was chosen as International Labor Day. The problem in the USA was that a general strike in 1886 in Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois had turned into a major catastrophe with a bomb thrown, and seven police officers and about six demonstrators were killed. The consequences were politically tainted trials and the hanging of seven anarchists. People across the country and around the world were shocked, and Haymarket became a rallying point for labor demonstrations. The U.S. did not want to have the Haymarket incident connected to workers observances, so in 1894 the September date was chosen as the official Labor Day.
Is it a social or political observance?
The emphasis has changed over the years from parades and mass demonstrations, to end of summer picnics and the last of the summer vacations. Newspaper coverage has more about barbeque and cookout recipes than about the problems of the labor force in the country. There will, however, be enough Labor Day speeches given by union officials, government representatives, and politicians seeking to win over voters, to make the day one of social and political importance.
Sources: history.com, aflcio.org, US Department of Labor.