DISCUSSION: The origins of Labor Day

Labor Day is a national U.S. holiday celebrating the American labor movement and contributions of workers. How did the holiday originate, and why do many other countries celebrate their Labor Day on or around May 1?

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Here are the key points:

Labor Day (U.S.)

  • Celebrated on the first Monday in September.
  • Meant to honor the American labor movement and contributions workers have made.
  • Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a public holiday in 1887.
  • Established as a federal holiday in 1894 under the administration of President Grover Cleveland.

Origins

  • As manufacturing increased during the late 1800s, labor unions grew more prominent.
    • During the Industrial Revolution, the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week in order to make a basic living.
    • People of all ages, including children as young as 5, worked in extremely unsafe conditions.
  • The first official Labor Day parade occurred in New York City on September 5, 1882.
    • 10,000 to 20,000 people took unpaid time off work to march through Lower Manhattan in support of labor rights.
    • The event was organized by New York City’s Central Labor Union.
  • Central Labor Union Secretary Matthew Maguire is often credited with proposing a national Labor Day after the success of the September 5 demonstration. It is also said that American Federation of Labor Vice President P.J. Maguire proposed the idea to the Central Labor Union months earlier.

Labor Day vs. May Day

  • The Haymarket Affair:
    • Worker strikes were common in the late 1800s as industrial working conditions were often dangerous and wages were low.
    • On May 4, 1886, labor activists held a rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by Chicago police the day prior.
    • As officers advanced on the Haymarket Square crowd, an unidentified individual threw a bomb at them, resulting in chaos as police opened fire.
    • Seven officers and one civilian were killed.
  • Aftermath of the Haymarket Affair:
    • In August 1886, eight men labelled as anarchists were convicted in connection to the bombing.
    • The trial jury was considered biased, and there was no evidence connecting the men to the bombing.
    • Seven of the men were sentenced to death, and one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Of the seven sentenced to death, four were hanged and one committed suicide.
    • The remaining three activists were pardoned after widespread public questioning of their guilt.
  • Labor activists around the world viewed the men as martyrs and began celebrating May 1 as Workers Day to commemorate the Haymarket Affair.
  • The Pullman Strike:
    • On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked out to protest layoffs and cut wages.
    • The following month, the American Railway Union declared a boycott of Pullman railroad cars, halting all train traffic west of Detroit.
    • President Cleveland called in the U.S. Army to suppress the strikes, resulting in at least 26 people being killed.
  • Following the Pullman Strike, Cleveland pressed for a national Labor Day in order to appease labor activists. He chose the first Monday in September for the holiday.
    • It is speculated that Cleveland did not choose May 1 for the holiday over concerns that it would encourage protests like the Haymarket Affair and strengthen communist and socialist activism in the U.S.

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