Labor Day is the day we celebrate the process our mothers went through to deliver us at birth. Sorry, wrong holiday; Labor Day in the U.S. is the day we celebrate the achievements of the American labor movement.
While it is still disputed whether the holiday was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York — observances of the holiday go back over a century in the U.S.
First Celebration of Labor Day
The first Labor Day celebration was on September 5, 1882, in New York City and was organized by the Central Labor Union. The legislature of New York first deliberated a bill to establish a regular holiday, but Oregon was the first to pass it on February 21, 1887. It was first proposed as “a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”
In other countries, it’s often celebrated as International Workers’ Day on May Day. The U.S. does not observe it on May 1st for at least two reasons. The more recent one is that May 1 became associated with the Russian Revolution and Communism. But the more critical part of the backstory starts with the Chicago Haymarket Affair of 1886.
Labor Day Backstory
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had stated in 1884 that labor reform and the 8-hour workday would begin on May 1 in 1866. They had two years to implement it. On May 1, 1886, some 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Avenue in Chicago, arm-in-arm, carrying their Union banners. Some estimate that the total strike ranged from 300,000 to half a million workers. Two days later, on May 3rd, things turned violent. The Chicago police killed several striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant.
This, in turn, precipitated a protest meeting that was planned for Haymarket Square on May 4th. At the end of this meeting that night, there was an altercation between about 200 people and 176 police officers. An unknown assailant dropped a dynamite bomb, panic shooting began, and police killed some of their own men. Four workers and seven police officers’ deaths resulted from the shooting and bomb; dozens were wounded.
On May 5th, martial law was declared throughout the U.S., and anti-labor governments leveraged the affair to crush local Union movements; labor leaders in Chicago were arrested, Union newspapers were closed down, and eight men were tried. The trial lasted for two months, ultimately resulting in four hangings and another found dead in his cell. The governor pardoned those still alive.
All of this gained international publicity, influencing similar labor movements. Twenty country delegates met in Paris on July 14, 1889, at the Marxist International Socialist Congress, a socialist and labor party organization. Influenced in part by the Haymarket Affair, May 1st was established as International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day. The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International meeting in Amsterdam called for
“all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
U.S. Observance of Labor Day
Though Oregon was the first state to make it an official public holiday in the U.S., as I mentioned, it became a Federal holiday in 1894, at which time 30 states celebrated it. Now, all American states recognize it as a federal holiday. In the U.S., it is considered the unofficial end of summer, it being a three-day weekend ahead of the school term in some parts of the country. In days of yore, all school systems began then, as well as football. Now, school often starts in August, and football seems to run all year long, with occasional interruptions by baseball.
Can You Wear White After Labor Day?
This unofficial fashion dress code goes back to the 19th century. This “rule” was to separate the “nouveau rich” from “old money.” Those who had old money would leave the city during the warmer months for their summer homes, where white signified “vacation wear.” White dresses, linen suits, and Panama hats were considered the “look of leisure” for old monied families.
After Labor Day, as people went back in September to the city for school and work, you’d pack away your summer clothes in anticipation of Autumn and darker clothes: navy blue suits, gray sweaters, tweed jackets: a different wardrobe.
But this dress code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
Work has dignity. It is not a curse. In the Biblical account, God worked six days in Creation and rested the 7th day from his labors. Even in the Garden, man was given the work of cultivating and caring for the earth. And naming the animals.
I’ve always wondered about the naming of the platypus, which means “flat-footed.” I think Adam should have gone with the full Greek ornithorhynchus, which means “bird snout”; or anatinus, which means “duck-like” in Latin.
How will you celebrate Labor Day?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian