Labor Day and May Day

The other day, Jacobin reminded us that “Labor Day is May 1” and that the official U.S. Labor Day is “a boss’s holiday.” (I’ll call them May Day and Labor Day, to be clear.) I fully agree with the sentiment of the article, but there are a couple of problems with it. First, it glosses over the role that organized labor had in creating Labor Day, and makes it seem as though President Grover Cleveland thought it up out of the clear blue sky. At one point, the author even says that its “origins” were “a presidential ploy.” The one nod to labor is the brief mention that in “previous Septembers” there were “small workers celebrations in many states observing the end of summer.” This obscures the real history of the day, which is documented in the second volume of Philip S. Foner’s history of the labor movement.1 In it, in a section titled “The Founding of Labor Day,” Foner notes that in 1882,

“Peter J. McGuire, Socialist founder and General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, arose at a meeting of the Central Labor Union of New York City and introduced a resolution recommending that ‘a day should be set aside as a festive day [for] a parade through the streets of the city.’ He proposed the first Monday in September, since ‘it would come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.'”

This has the ring of the celebration of the end of summer (and trying to get a needed day off), but 30,000 workers came out for the parade that year with various common labor slogans on placards. By 1884 – ten years prior to Cleveland making the holiday official – it had spread beyond New York City and unionists were calling for the day to be recognized as “a universal holiday for workingmen.”  At its convention that year, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the predecessor organization to the American Federation of Labor) unanimously adopted this resolution (which was “supplemented by special resolutions adopted by local groups in many states”):

“Resolved, That the first Monday in September of each year be set apart as a laborer’s national holiday, and that we recommend its observance by all wage workers, irrespective of sex, calling, or nationality.”

Foner goes on to note that “[t]he first nation-wide observance of the first Monday in September as a national holiday took place on September 7, 1885.” Oregon made Labor Day official in 1887. Then in 1894, “Amos J. Cummings, a New York Congressman and member of Typographical Union No. 6, introduced a bill in Congress, drawn up by the A. F. of L., to establish Labor Day, the first Monday in September, as a national legal holiday. It was adopted by Congress on June 28, 1894, and signed on the same day by President Cleveland.”

The Jacobin article is not the only one to treat the subject in this way. It reminded me of another that came out around a previous Labor Day, and after a brief search the one I was thinking of turned out to be a 2013 Gawker article titled “Labor Day Is a Scam To Keep You Poor and Miserable Forever.” In fact, they are so similar that the Jacobin article might as well be called “Labor Day is a scam to keep you poor and miserable forever, redux.” According to this version of history, “After U.S. marshals and soldiers slaughtered railroad workers during the 1894 Pullman Strike, the federal government quickly whipped up a national workers’ holiday.” Again, no mention of workers’ themselves coming up with the idea over a decade prior to this.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the U.S. government was opportunistic and declared Labor Day a holiday so as to steer people away from May Day and the radical wing of the labor movement, as both of these articles argue. But that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the actual context. History is complex, and when we erase the role that ordinary men and women play in it, it is usually to our detriment. These two articles even border on not just simplifying history but falsifying it, which is not good for obvious reasons, including that this can be used to refute their central point and make radicals seem untrustworthy.

In the beginning of this post, I said there were a couple of problems with the Jacobin article. Here is the other, also a result of bad history: it asserts that the Haymarket bomb was thrown “likely by a provocateur working for one of Chicago’s industrial titans.” While this is certainly a possibility, it is absolutely not the historical consensus, insofar as one exists, which is much more like “it was thrown by someone, and we will never really be sure who it was, even though we can say that the anarchists tried for it were almost certainly not guilty and their trial was certainly a travesty of justice.”2

1 Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume II, 2nd ed. (1975), pp. 96-98.
2 For just about everything you wanted to know about Haymarket, see James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (2006). The Chicago Historical Society also has a good collection of documents related to Haymarket.

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