Where did Labor Day come from?

Labor Day image from Twin Owls Steakhouse

For most holidays, it’s pretty obvious what they are celebrating and where they came from. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the patron saint of Ireland and Irish culture, Columbus Day celebrates the first arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, and the Fourth of July celebrates the Declaration of Independence. Yet on the first Monday in September, millions of Americans have a day off of work to go on one last summer vacation or fire up the grill. Why? Where did Labor Day come from?

To answer this question, we need to go back in time to the late 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and technology was rapidly changing everyone’s lives. In many ways, the standard of living was improving for many, yet for the common industrial worker, life was absolutely terrible in many ways. Workers were forced to man dangerous machines for 10-16 hours, six days a week for crummy pay or risk losing their jobs, and often working-class children were forced to take jobs instead of attend school in order to support their families.

Cotton mill image from the National Archives and Records Administration

It was only natural, then, for workers to start banding together to demand change. Labor unions became a growing force in both the workplace and politics, demanding better working conditions and better pay, in spite of the fact they were illegal at the time.

It was in this context that a machinist from New Jersey who was active in the still-young labor movement named Matthew Maguire spoke before the Central Labor Union in 1882 and proposed a “Labor Day” to celebrate the American worker. This idea started to catch on, as labor unions in New York started holding an annual workers’ parade in early September.

Then, in May 1886, the Haymarket Affair went down in Chicago. What started as a peaceful strike turned violent when police officers fired on the workers on May 3, killing two, and the following day a bomb was thrown at police by radical activists seeking revenge, killing seven officers and four civilians. These shocking events led to an outpouring of public sympathy for industrial workers, as well as fear that without reforms, there would be an armed revolution. After all, socialism, communism, and anarchism all emerged within the labor movement and were growing forces among many workers and intellectuals of the time.

Little by little, new laws were passed in many countries around the world to protect workers and reduce the appeal of more radical political movements. Demands such as child labor bans, minimum wages, eight-hour workdays and occupational safety and health laws were put in place to protect workers, and the labor unions themselves were legalized. In the United States, the Haymarket Affair led state after state to declare the first Monday in September a public holiday for workers, starting with Oregon. By 1894, thirty states honored Labor Day.

In the meantime, the Second International, a political federation of socialist and communist movements in countries around the world (the “Second” in its name refers to the fact it saw itself as the successor to the defunct International Workingmen’s Association that had once included such notable figures as Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin) decided to honor the victims of the Haymarket Affair by declaring May 1 to be “International Workers Day”. In Europe, the May 1 holiday caught on, in part because that day was already an important spring festival. Country after country around the world started adopting May 1 as a public holiday honoring workers, and today it is celebrated by the majority of countries around the world.

We Americans just had to be different, though. While there was some support for switching our Labor Day to May 1st so we could line up with the international celebration, our Labor Day tradition was actually older (even if just by a few years), and America’s leaders were not exactly inclined to look like they were supporting a radical organization that included communists among its members.

In any case, the Haymarket Affair would not be the last headline-grabbing violent incident between striking workers and law enforcement. In 1894, the Pullman Strike by railroad workers threatened to shut down vital railroad traffic in Illinois. President Grover Cleveland authorized the U.S. Army to break up the strike and get the trains moving again, but in the process, the soldiers ended up killing 30 and wounding 57. Again, there was mass public outrage at the violence. To appease angry labor unions, Congress unanimously voted only six days later to declare Labor Day a federal holiday, and President Cleveland signed the law.

Today, 222 years later, it is easy to forget just how far we have come since those days, and how much of a struggle it was to get here. We take for granted the fact that we have laws protecting our rights as employees, wherever we may work. We are used to having one of the highest standards of living in the world. In our minds, Labor Day is a day of sports on TV and special sales at our favorite stores. Yet we often don’t stop to remember those who protested, who suffered, and who died to give us these privileges. This year, I will be remembering them.