Labor Day is more than just a Monday holiday marking the end of summer.
At least it should be. For many of us in the union movement, it’s a time to hold Labor Day picnics and rallies. It’s also a time to reflect on the sacrifices of those U.S. workers who came before us—especially those who lost their lives in the fight for justice at the workplace and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for corporate greed—as most likely did the six Crandall Canyon miners.
While the radical origins of May Day are not contested, as labor historian David Montgomery notes:
Labor Day is more a complicated affair.
The United States is one of the few countries to celebrate Labor Day in September. Elsewhere around the globe, nations honor workers on May 1—May Day.
And that historical quirk is no accident.
Ironically, “May Day” was founded by U.S. workers—and taken away from them as a day to celebrate by a federal government fearful of the wave of large demonstrations for the eight-hour day and massive strikes for justice on the railroads, in the mines and factories that had begun in 1877.
Such an action may seem quaint now. But the symbolism of May Day—working people challenging corporate power—still causes fear among the top elite.
Just ask George W. Bush and the Republican extremists in Congress.
In 2003, Bush proclaimed May 1 as “Loyalty Day” when U.S. citizens should
express allegiance to our nation and its founding ideals, we resolve to ensure that the blessings of liberty endure and extend for generations to come.
That same year, Congress, designated May 1 of each year as “Loyalty Day.”
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2003, as Loyalty Day. I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance. I also call upon government officials to display the flag of the United States on all government buildings on Loyalty Day.
And while hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and their supporters took to the streets for justice May 1, 2006—as did their symbolic forbearers in the 18th century—Bush again proclaimed May 1 Loyalty Day.
Just when you think historical events are just that—they come back stronger than ever.
May Day was officially founded in 1886, during a Chicago strike for the eight-hour workday. In 1889, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) delegate to the International Labor Congress in Paris proposed May 1 as international Labor Day. Workers were to march for an eight-hour day, democracy and the right of workers to organize. Delegates approved the request and chose May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations in favor of the eight-hour day.
On a separate track, U.S. labor leaders had agitated for creation of a labor holiday years before the Chicago rally. Among them, Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, had proposed his idea for a holiday honoring America’s workers at a New York labor meeting in early 1882. (Others say the “founder” of Labor Day was Matthew Maguire, a machinist who served as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.) Either way, New York’s Central Labor Union began planning Labor Day events for the second Tuesday in September. McGuire (one of them) had suggested a September date to provide a break during the long stretch between Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
Today, the union movement marks Sept. 5, 1882, as the first Labor Day, when 20,000 working people marched in New York City to demand an eight-hour workday and other labor law reforms. In the parade up Broadway, they carried banners reading, “Labor Creates All Wealth.” About a quarter million New Yorkers turned out to watch.
In 1887, Oregon became the first state to establish Labor Day as a holiday, which it put on the first Saturday in June. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York observed Labor Day on the first Monday in September that year.
The remainder of that decade and the early 1890s saw massive strikes, often put down with brutal violence by government troops. In the 1894 Pullman strike, led by the American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs, workers demanded lower rents (Pullman was a company town) and higher pay after massive wage cuts and layoffs. Railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, Ill., and the strike was crushed.
But 1894 was an election year. As workers protested Cleveland’s harsh methods, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress to create a holiday for workers. Yet the symbolism of May Day was too strong for U.S. politicians. In creating an annual Labor Day holiday in September, Congress at the same time declared May 1 to be “Law Day”—paving the way for the Bush administration’s Loyalty Day.
Cleveland signed the bill creating Labor Day six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.
Writing of last year’s May Day protests by immigrant workers, historian Nelson Lichtenstein says:
these May Day demonstrations and boycotts return the American protest tradition to its turn-of-the-20th-century ethnic proletarian origins—a time when, in the United States as well as in much of Europe, the quest for citizenship and equal rights was inherent in the fight for higher wages, stronger unions, and more political power for the working class.
Meanwhile, Montgomery points out that the day created in September to honor America’s workers was established precisely because of workers’ demands.
First state governments and then the federal government adopted the day in response to workers’ demands. The government did not create the holiday.
Some call May Day the real Labor Day. But workers in this nation shed their blood for a day of honor. And no matter what the date, they deserve our memory.