To students and parents, Labor Day means the end of summer and back to school. It’s one last chance to go crazy at the waterslide park before it closes for summer. For sports fans, it’s the pennant race in baseball and the beginning of the NCAA and NFL football season. For workers, it’s a halfway break between Independence Day and Thanksgiving; and for fashionistas, it’s a chance to shop at a discount and the unofficial cut-off for wearing white.
Labor Day is a holiday that Americans associate with parades and picnics to celebrate the bittersweet bye-bye to summer. But why is it celebrated in September when most of the world commemorates it on May Day?
In most of the world, including Greece, International Workers’ Day is marked on May 1st with demonstrations, outdoor activities or both. Know why? I’ll give you a hint: It’s an American event.
May Day, commemorates the anniversary of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States (now the AFLCIO) and Canada (FOTLU) resolving that, “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” This would become law and set a worldwide precedent.
But on the same day, a nationwide contingency of 400,000 workers went on strike. This would eventually lead to a series of events that include police killing six strikers, the Chicago Haymarket rally/riot to protest police violence, more casualties and a controversial trial delivering eight convictions and five hangings — nearly all of them were men of German descent.
A few days later on May 5, the Wisconsin National Guard fired on a crowd of protesters, killing seven in what is known as the Bay View Massacre.
Many use May to demonstrate and hold rallies to honor the strength, integrity and struggle of workers, past and present. But it is also a day of rest, an opportunity to welcome Spring and spend time with family.
The majority of educational and government resources say Peter McGuire of the New York Knights of Labor initiated the idea in 1882 to honor “national strength, prosperity and well-being”; he got the idea after observing a festival in Toronto commemorating a printer’s strike in 1872, but some sources conveniently skip over that, and others say Matthew McGuire founded the holiday. In 1884, a resolution was passed designating the first Monday of September as Labor Day; a parade followed with most carrying signs pertaining to an 8-hour workday. Twenty-eight states made it a state holiday.
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress unanimously made it a federal holiday. But why did he choose September instead of May Day?
In addition to the Chicago Haymarket riots and Bay View Massacre, President Cleveland declared that a strike by Pullman Railroad workers was a “federal crime” and sent 12,000 troops to break it up, during which two men were killed.
It was an election year, and he believed celebrating Labor Day on May Day might provide an excuse for further rioting and empower the socialist/anarchist movement, so he quickly adopted the Knights of Labor resolution commemorating Labor Day on the first Monday of September. He was not re-elected.
Even the land of the free and home of the brave, one can uncover a violent and ugly past. Hot dog, anyone?
Special thanks to “Grits” for his story idea