Friday, September 2, 2011

The origins of Labor Day

  May Day in September

Labor Day Parade Union Square, NYC.

So Monday September 5th is Labor Day, a federal holiday. It’s beloved by everyone but children who realize it means those School’s Open, Drive Carefully signs are right around the corner. 

To most Americans it marks the end of summer and the beginning of football. It once had a much richer meaning and purpose. But like most holidays it has gradually lost its connection to its origins.

The first American Labor Day celebration was held in New York in 1882. It wasn’t a holiday, nor a government sanctioned celebration. Merely the first signs in America of a counter-revolution to the Industrial Revolution. 

Four years later something much more important happened.

On May 1st, 1886, the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. At the time, six-day workweeks and 12-14 hour workdays were the norm. There was a strike at the McCormick Reaper plant in Chicago. There were huge demonstrations. The Chicago police tried to break up a rally in Haymarket Square, a pipe bomb was thrown. The Police fired into the crowd wounding 200 and killing four protesters. Eight policemen were killed (most by friendly fire). Eight labor leaders were put on trial with absolutely no evidence they had any connection to the bombing. In fact, the prosecution admitted they hadn’t thrown the bomb. Despite that, four of them were executed and one committed suicide in prison.

The trial enraged labor groups; protests were held around the world. In 1889, the Socialist International declared May 1st a day of demonstrations, and since 1890 these have been held annually worldwide. The day came be called “May Day.”Labor advocates in the United States also pressed for a national holiday to recognize workers. By the 1890’s May First was already being celebrated in several states and was called “Labor Day”.

But the Federal Government wasn’t about to celebrate a workers’ holiday. They knew which side of the Labor-Management dispute they were on. It wasn’t until 1925 that President Calvin Coolidge codified the stance with his famous statement: “The business of America is business.” But administrations before and since held that stance (Think of Ole Ronnie Reagan busting the Air Traffic Controller’s Union.)

Then In 1893, President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 soldiers to Pullman, Illinois to break up a railroad strike. 13 strikers were killed. Enraged strikers went wilding. They destroyed a good deal of property and along with it Grover Cleveland’s image. Grover, in a bid to restore that tarnished image, declared a national holiday in honor of workers and rushed it through Congress where it was passed into law less than a week after the strike ended.
The date chosen for the holiday was in September. The reason wasn’t that it was the opener for the NFL. They wanted the holiday to stay far away on the calendar from the Socialist “May Day – Labor Day."

If you go on the U.S. Labor Department website there’s no mention of any of this interesting, bloody, political history. Just some blather about the contributions workers have made blah blah blah. I’m sure they know the history they’d just rather we all forgot it. Which more or less has happened.

Happy May Day in September folks.

As you burn a burger on the BBQ this long weekend try and remember that a lot of people had to die for you to have the right to go to the beach and say to someone “My the summer went by so quickly.”


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