Political Animal


September 02, 2012 6:36 PM Happy Labor Day

By Kathleen Geier

Aside from the day off from the work, the parades, and the barbecues, we can expect the display of another annual tradition on Labor Day: the hand-wringing editorials and opinion pieces about the state of the American labor movement. Amongst all the journalistic chaff, you may even find some wheat — like this Washington Post op-ed, for instance, which makes a compelling argument as to why joining a union should be a civil right.

I won’t be making a contribution to that particular “whither labor?” genre, but I did want make some brief remarks about the historical background of the Labor Day holiday. Labor unions are much weaker in the U.S. than in much of the rest of the western world, and historically, the American labor movement has never won all that much institutional support. This is reflected in the history of Labor Day itself. It’s interesting to note that Labor Day is a uniquely American holiday. The rest of the world celebrates its workers on May Day, but the U.S. does things differently, and therein lies a tale.

Labor Day has its origins in two seminal events in labor history, both of which took place in my hometown of Chicago. The first is the Haymarket affair. On May 4, 1886, striking workers at the Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company were demonstrating for an eight-hour day. Someone in the crowd threw a bomb at police who were attempting to break up the protest; seven police officers and four civilians were killed. Eight anarchists were convicted on trumped-up charges of conspiracy in connection with the bombing, and four of them were eventually hanged. Their martyrdom galvanized international protests. By 1890, demonstrations were being organized around the world on May 1 in support of the eight-hour day, and in solidarity with the Haymarket martyrs. In subsequent years, May 1 became an international worker’s holiday.

But not in the U.S., however. We Americans celebrate our worker day on Labor Day. Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, following the end of the bitter Pullman strike (which took place in Chicago). The new holiday was intended as a conciliatory gesture toward labor, which had fared badly in the Pullman strike (the feds had intervened on behalf of management). May Day was considered as the date for the Labor Day holiday but was rejected by President Grover Cleveland and by some of the more conservative labor leaders, because of its radical associations with anarchists, communists, and the like.

So that is the story of how the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, celebrates its workers on Labor Day rather than May Day, even though, ironically enough, May Day began in commemoration of an event that occurred on our soil. Clearly, our government has always had a wary and uneasy relationship with the labor movement, and even within the American labor movement itself, many of its most important groups and leaders have taken great pains to distance themselves from the more radical elements in their midst. These conservative tendencies in the American labor movement have not served it well, I’m afraid.

Today at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, there’s a weird little quasi-modernist sculpture commemorating what took place there in 1886, but nothing about the monument, or the locale, suggests that it was ground zero for a world-historic event. But you know what the Haymarket is really well-known for today? Junkies! The place is pretty much junkie central, perhaps because there’s a fairly notorious detox center located nearby. Thus the center of mass protests against economic oppression in one era becomes the dumping ground for the wretched human refuse of our economic system in another.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Alison S on September 02, 2012 8:50 PM:

    Canada also celebrates Labour Day the first weekend in September. The historical reason for it is from dateandtime.com "The origins of Labour Day can be traced back to April 15, 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized Canada's first significant demonstration for worker's rights. The aim of the demonstration was to release the 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union who were imprisoned for striking to campaign for a nine-hour working day. At this time, trade unions were still illegal and striking was seen as a criminal conspiracy to disrupt trade. In spite of this, the Toronto Trades Assembly was already a significant organization and encouraged workers to form trade unions, mediated in disputes between employers and employees and signaled the mistreatment of workers.

    There was enormous public support for the parade and the authorities could no longer deny the important role that the trade unions had to play in the emerging Canadian society. A few months later, a similar parade was organized in Ottawa and passed the house of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald. Later in the day, he appeared before the gathering and promised to repeal all Canadian laws against trade unions. This happened in the same year and eventually led to the founding of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1883.

    Labour Day was originally celebrated in the spring but it was moved to the fall after 1894. A similar holiday, Labor Day is held on the same day in the United States of America. Canadian trade unions are proud that this holiday was inspired by their efforts to improve workers' rights. Many countries have a holiday to celebrate workers' rights on or around May 1."

  • Joe Lapsley on September 02, 2012 9:27 PM:

    In contrast, May 1st was made into "Law Day" in the U.S.by Eisenhower in 1958, despite the fact that the roots of Haymarket extend back at least to 1867 when employers in Chicago ignored (gasp) the law--the Illinois state 8-hour law that is.

  • c00p on September 02, 2012 10:08 PM:

    Muhammad Ali's great quote was "Put your money where your mouth is," something the US is notably bad at doing. We talk about loving the underdog and the common man and equal opportunity--but we do everything we can to subvert equal opportunity for the underdog and the common man. Both our houses of Congress might as well be called the House of Lords, along with every statehouse.

  • ante on September 03, 2012 12:02 AM:

    A nice tribute.

    Sadly our unions have been derided by right wing republicans, fox news, & right wing blogs fond of the orwellian language that includes union thug.

    A most underhanded and bogus fraud currently being perpetrated in the U.S. is the nonsense idea that the pathologically selfish mad men and women of the GOP actually care about the average citizen.

    And nothing could be further from the truth.

    Wake up America.

  • thewarthatkilledachilles on September 03, 2012 6:36 AM:

    Sun Myung Moon died somehow
    C00p noticed the joke
    Between the salts water and the high ground therein
    There lives a corrosive spirit that denies
    All things that fail
    To reflect on the shine
    That don't come from work pails

    Me me me me me me me

  • Alan in Toledo on September 03, 2012 8:20 AM:

    While it's been conventional wisdom for a century or more that the Haymarket anarchists were convicted on trumped up charges, that argument has been refuted (The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age by Tim Messer-Kruse).

    Messer-Kruse, a liberal and my son-in-law devoted ten years to answer the question posed by one of his students: if no evidence was presented at the trial, what did they talk about for six weeks? His research showed the findings and the trail were fair by the standards of the time.

  • c u n d gulag on September 03, 2012 8:38 AM:

    Thanks for your spirited posts this weekend - and have a great Labor Day!

    Oh, and in the spirit of Labor Day - CAN WE FIRE CRAPTCHA?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

  • mellowjohn on September 03, 2012 8:43 AM:

    and now the chicago teachers union is being forced into a strike by the wannabe union buster and allegedly democratic mayor.

  • bluestatedon on September 03, 2012 9:04 AM:

    Being self-employed, I'm working all day today. At least I have a job, so I'm not complaining.

  • SadOldVet on September 03, 2012 9:30 AM:

    Kathleen, thanks for your great postings. I look forward to your return.

  • Christy on September 03, 2012 9:52 AM:

  • Shane Taylor on October 24, 2012 10:24 AM:

    I was just reading some of Prof. Messer-Kruse's work on the Haymarket conspiracy. Alan in Toledo is correct. The facts cannot support Kathleen Geier's claim that charges were "trumped-up." There was a conspiracy to kill the police, and the facts of the case were well established at the time of the trial.


    Claims that there was no credible evidence of guilt deserve no more respect than Tea Party claims that Barack Obama's birth certificate was a fake.