What are the origins of Labor Day?
Labor Day, celebrated in the United States and also in Canada (spelled Labour Day), have been held on the first Monday in September. The holiday originates in 1887, where in Oregon it was first celebrated. However, its roots are older and related to the wider international efforts by workers to celebrate a holiday. These worker movements were also affiliated with leftist political action, which has shaped the choosing of the date in the United States. The complex, often political history, of Labor Day has also shifted in recent periods.
Origins of Labor Day
The development of Labor Day developed through the history of the development of labor unions that arose as early as the late 18th century, particularly as factories and the Industrial Revolution began. With the rise and increasing growth of industrial development in the United States, labor unions increased in membership and, by extension, influence throughout the mid-19th century. This was not unique to the United States, as countries in Europe began to have workers organize and at times begin to conduct protests or even strikes.
One major development in the the mid-19th century was the increasing demand for consumer products and infrastructure, which led to increasing demands on factories, leading to growth that was fueled by unregulated labor markets. The supply of labor was plentiful as populations expanded, but this also meant that child labor and very long hours (12 or more per day) were typical. Average workers, despite working often 7-day weeks for more than 10 hours per day, often only just made enough to feed their families and keep their homes. In the United States and elsewhere, the second half of the 19th century saw increasing labor strikes protesting wages and often conditions, where sweatshop-like conditions often existed. With labor unions increasing in size, strikes became more effective in creating major disruptions to the economy, likely leading to eventual conflict with the authorities.
May 1st was, from ancient origins, a festival day, often associated as a celebration for spring. This day was used by labor activists, socialists, and other labor proponents as a day to celebrate labor and its contribution to society. The events were also used as demonstrations against work conditions in factories. In Chicago, in 1886, May 1 was celebrated as a day calling for the 8 hour workday. On May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Chicago, an organized demonstration, also calling for an 8 hour work day and protesting earlier police killings of protestors, turned violent occurred. A bomb was thrown into the crowd and, combined with subsequent gunfire by police, several police and demonstrates were killed (Figure 1). Interestingly, it was in Europe that saw this event as being influential to the International Workers Conference in 1889 that called for annual demonstrations on May 1st to commemorate the events of the Haymarket event. In 1891, May Day (May 1) became recognized as the official day to recognize labor. In the United States, the events of Haymarket was highly negative to the authorities, while also it made them wary of the increasing power of organized labor.
Developments in the Late 19th and early 20th Century
In the United States, celebrations in September 5th in celebrating labor had occurred by 1882. The American Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Union were two organizations that had advocated for a day to celebrate labor. Canada in the 1880s had also developed organized celebrations of labor in September, likely influencing US choice for the date. Trade unions in the United States had proposed a September date for a holiday throughout the 1880s. However, there was widespread disagreement, as many larger organizations, which wanted to link themselves with their colleagues in Europe, wanted to celebrate May 1 as Labor Day, holding events of remembering labor and to demonstrate against work conditions and wages. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to celebrate Labor Day.
Throughout the 1890s, a national movement to commemorate labor developed. The Pullman Strike in 1894 occurred due to reduction in pay for workers as well as high costs associated with the Pullman rail company housing provided to them at a cost. The Pullman Company controlled much of the freight rail at the time and had vast power but also became critical to the operations of the larger economy of the United States. A strike was seen as threatening the US wider economy, leading to the government sending federal troops to breakup the protests after the protesters refused a court order to disband (Figure 2). This attempt at breaking the strike led to riots and violence, which eventually did lead to the collapse of the strikes but also many deaths. In effect, the governments actions were effective but politically costly for then President Grover Cleveland.
The cost to the government was widespread discontent with how the strike was put down. Cleveland, along with Congress, proposed having a federal holiday to celebrate labor to gain some political support he may have lost, particularly from some of the trade unions. However, one stipulation for Cleveland was the date of the celebration be in September, that is the first Monday in September, as he wanted to avoid celebrating in May due to the events of Haymarket. Cleveland did not want the Haymarket events remembered and serve as a rallying cry for further demonstrations, strikes, or even political turmoil. Additionally, already the US government began to be wary of political movements sponsored by labor movements and what were socialist organizations. In effect, it was a holiday that put the US in similar footing to what happened elsewhere but with a specific avoidance of a day that the US government feared could become a rallying cry for other riots or even political action.
As Labor Day became an official US holiday in 1894, much did not change from earlier celebrations of Labor Day at state and other levels. Parades were held commemorating labor and calls were made for better working conditions and fair wages. However, by the early 20th century, prosperity increased in many areas in the United States as market conditions improved. Worker conditions did gradually improve, creating alternative opportunities for celebrations. Fairs began to develop around the holiday weekend and more family-oriented events began to be organized by communities as leisure time increased for people.
The 8 hour workday, which is what the Haymarket demonstrates originally wanted, did eventually come to the United States. First, at local and company levels by the 1880s-1890s, but recognized through federal laws such as the Adamson Act in 1916. Many of the core reasons for strikes faded, although strikes often did reoccur as abuses were evident and economic hardships returned. Labor Day increasingly began to be associated as a end of summer holiday. Stores and markets began to use the event to market products. Schools began to organize their calendars around the Labor Day weekend, choosing to resume classes in the first Tuesday, although many still begin slightly earlier. As it is seen as the end of summer, it is also seen as the transition period for autumn sports and activities.
Scholars also debate that declaring Labor Day in September, rather than in May, as it is celebrate now in many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, has helped avoid more extremist acts in the United States. Trade Unions, for a time, became relatively powerful but also steered organized labor in the United States away from more socialist and later Communist movements that spread in some countries in the 20th century. To this day, many people in the United States have disassociated the radical influences that occurred in the late 19th century on the creation of Labor Day in part because of the date being established in September and possibly less linked, symbolically, to the May Day celebrations.
Although Labor Day today is a Federal holiday, it is not mandated that all or most workers have the day off. Nevertheless, most employers in the United States recognize it as a holiday, although they are not required to make it a paid holiday. The ideas of Labor Day have not completely disappeared. It still holds significance particularly for those calling for increased minimum wage and other perceived injustice, although organized labor is far less influential today than in the late 19th century. This includes labor equality and calling for equal pay for men and women for similar roles.
Most official holidays in our calendar commemorate national or religious events. Labor day is a product of the Industrial Revolution, when organized labor and more radical movements began to organize against often appalling working conditions and low wages. The late 19th century witnessed several violent episodes where strikes were put down or economic disruption occurred. While many of the violent movements were put down, it was recognized something must be done to appease increasingly organized labor movements. With improved economic conditions, many forgot the reasons for why the day became established and today has mostly a symbolic meaning in the United States as the end of summer. Ironically events in the United States made May Day (May 1) an important date for organized labor internationally. For other countries, they have retained May 1 as the holiday for labor. In left-leaning states and governments, it is even seen as among the most important dates to celebrate.
- For more on the development of labor unions, see: Skurzynski, G. (2008) Sweat and blood: a history of U.S. labor unions. People’s history. Minneapolis, Twenty-First Century Books.
- For economic conditions that shaped labor movements in the 19th century, see: McVeigh, F.J. & Wolfer, L.T. (2004) Brief history of social problems: a critical thinking approach. Dallas, University Press of America.
- For more on events that developed from the Haymarket incident and related strikes, see: Rull, J. (2016). The Chicago Haymarket Affair: A Guide to a Labor Rights Milestone. History Press Library Editions.
- For more on how Labor day developed in the US states, see: Kevin Boyle (ed.) (1998) Organized labor and American politics, 1894-1994: the labor-liberal alliance. SUNY series in American labor history. Albany, State University of New York Press.
- For more on the Pullman Strike and subsequent events, see: Stein, R.C. (2001) The Pullman strike and the labor movement in American history. In American history. Berkeley Heights, NJ, USA, Enslow Publishers.
- For more on the choice of September for Labor day, see: Marianne Debouzy (ed.) (1992) In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty: immigrents, workers, and citizens in the American republic, 1880-1920. 1st University of Illinois Press ed. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, pg. 173.
- For more on how Labor Day events evolved into the 20th century, see: Coleman, M., Ganong, L.H. & Warzinik, K. (2007) Family life in 20th-century America. Family life through history. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press.
- For more on labor rights progress, see: Boyle 1998: 84.
- For more on the impact of Labor Day, see: Haverty-Stacke, D.T. (2009) America’s forgotten holiday: May Day and nationalism, 1867-1960. American history and culture. New York, New York University Press.
- For modern movements on labor issues, see: Baldwin, R.E. (2003) The decline of US labor unions and the role of trade. Washington, D.C, Institute for International Economics.