U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Our Own Private Labor Day

Today, the United States celebrates Labor Day, a holiday that bears an important resemblance to another American ritual that just arrived again this weekend: football. Like football, a holiday celebrating working people and organized labor can be found both in this country and in other countries around the world. But, like other countries’ football, other countries’ labor days are fundamentally different from our own.  In the case of Labor Day, the most obvious difference is timing: other countries have a holiday on May 1; we have a holiday on the first Monday in September.[1]  How did we end up with our own private Labor Day?

In fact, both Labor Day and May Day can trace their origins to the U.S. and the extraordinary series of labor actions (and repressive countermeasures) that marked the last two decades of the 19th century. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the first Labor Day celebration occurred in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, under the sponsorship of the Central Labor Union.  A second celebration was held exactly a year later. And by 1885 and 1886, various municipalities had begun to recognize Labor Day in September.

Meanwhile, the events that led to the creation of May Day as an International Workers’ Day took place. In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which would later become the American Federation of Labor, declared that, starting on May 1, 1886, the eight-hour day would become standard for American workers.  A series of protests and strikes in favor of the eight-hour day began on Sunday, May 1.  In Chicago, these demonstrations would culminate, three days later, in the Haymarket Massacre, the aftermath of which became a huge setback for the labor movement in the U.S.  Three years later, in 1889, at the first congress of the Second International, in Paris, a resolution was passed calling for international demonstrations in May 1890, to mark the anniversary of Haymarket and demand the eight-hour day. Thus was born May Day as an international celebration of the Labor Movement.

During the 1890s, the repression of the labor movement in the U.S. continued. The spring and summer of 1894 would bring the Pullman Strike, which President Grover Cleveland helped put down with federal troops.  In the midst of this strike, in late June 1894, Congress passed, and President Cleveland signed into law, the federal Labor Day in September that we’ve known ever since.  Obviously, politics were involved in this decision. Labor Day was, at the very least, a sop to the labor movement at a time of active, federal repression of it.[2]  Less clear, at least from what I’ve read, is the extent to which the federal holiday was a kind of divide-and-conquer action: AFL President Samuel Gompers, a major proponent of a federal Labor Day, refused to ask his unions to go out on sympathy strike in support of the striking rail workers.  Nor have I found any sign that May Day was discussed in national debates around the proposed September Labor Day holiday in 1894.  Astoundingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, no mention of any of the labor-related clashes of the late nineteenth-century appears in the U.S. Labor Department’s official online history of the holiday.

Americans are famously a lot more concerned with brats ‘n’ beer than with the fate of the working class in our Labor Day celebrations. But we are also permanently (if symbolically) out-of-synch with workers around the world in our September celebrations.  Perhaps, given the long, slow decline of American organized labor, that’s now the Labor Day we deserve.    But in an ever-more globalized economy, it’s not the one that we need.

[1] When I was a kid, I could never keep Memorial and Labor Day straight: which one began summer and which one ended it?  I eventually overcame this forgetfulness by remembering that Labor Day was the one further away from May Day.

[2] Here’s an ok potted history of the creation of the federal Labor Day holiday from PBS. It’s marred by getting one crucial detail wrong: Cleveland was not up for reelection in 1894 (or, for that matter, 1896, when, following his second term, he did not seek reelection).  However, the Republicans hammered Cleveland’s Democrats in the 1894 midterms. And Cleveland’s own party would repudiate his policies when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, I wrote a long comment to post here, but it ended up being so personal that I put it up over at my own blog. (I won’t post a link here, because who knows how long I’ll even leave it up.)

    What I will say here is that I’m puzzling over the historical problem of pro-labor Republicans — or rather, the problem of when being anti-labor became a sine qua non of Republican politics. I don’t think this was always the case, but it’s difficult to parse when/why/how a producerist ethos morphed into an anti-labor ethos.

  2. Good point LD. It’s something that is somewhat unclear–after all, you have Richard Nixon pursuing the white male working class vote in the 1970s, primarily through appeals to union workers.

    It might be better to trace what you describe above to a couple of factors: the New Right’s aversion to unions before and during the Reagan years, and the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s (stagflation, globalization, etc.) that added serious stresses on the American labor force that have hampered it in the last forty years.

  3. Here in LA, I’ve learned to put the trash out on the Sunday evening before a Monday holiday, even Christmas, even the Fourth of July. Our clearly patriotic public works workerpersons collect it on Mondays rain or shine or shine. [Or shine. We have no snow, and little rain. Plus they get overtime/holiday pay.]

    But never ever ever on Labor Day. I even put it out last night as a test, just in case I was wrong for the first time in decades, but the basura is still sitting there uncollected.

    In the public worker universe, Labor Day is sacred. The rest, not so much.

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